The Early Years // 1903- 1927
The life of Charlotte Perriand began in Paris on the 24th of October in 1903. Born to a Tailor and Seamstress she grew up in a world of fabric and fashion sketches. Her aptitude for drawing was noticed at an early age and with help from her mother she enrolled in the Ecole de L’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs (“School of the Central Union of Decorative Arts”) in 1920 to study furniture design. At the end of her course, she was selected from her class to be a part of the ‘Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs ed Industriels Modernes’ (that really doesn’t need translating) where she excelled.
Two years after graduating Perriand renovated her apartment into a room with a built-in wall bar made of aluminium, glass and chrome and a card table with built-in pool-pocket drink holders. She recreated this design as the Bar sous le toit (Bar under the roof) at the 1927 Salon d’Automne.
Her design featured an abundance of light-reflecting aluminium and nickel-plated surfaces, as well as leather cushions and glass shelves. Her design received wide praise from the press and established Perriand as a talent to watch.
The Bar sous le toit showed her preference for designs that represented the machine age, a departure from the preference of the time for finely handcrafted objects made of rare woods. Perriand took advantage of the use of steel as a medium in this project, which formerly was used primarily by men to gain even more attention as she strode into the spotlight.
Despite the success of Bar sous le toit in getting her name known, Perriand was not satisfied with creating designs just for the well-off; she wanted to work for Le Corbusier and pursue serial production and low-cost housing. She was inspired by Le Corbusier’s books, because she thought his writings that criticized the decorative arts aligned with the way she designed.
However, when she applied to work at Le Corbusier’s studio in October 1927, she was famously rejected with the reply:
“We don’t embroider cushions here.”
A month later, Le Corbusier visited the Bar sous le toit at the Salon d’Automne and offered her a job.
Le Corbusier was spellbound; this was the intoxicating hymn to the machine age he had been dreaming of. Nickel-plated copper stools were clustered around an anodised aluminium cocktail bar, while a chrome-plated table nestled beside a leather banquette and a built-in gramophone cabinet. She had created the essence of what he had been looking for, the embodiment of l’esprit nouveau. The New Spirit.
The Le Corbusier Years // 1927 – 1937
At Le Corbusier’s studio, she was head of their interiors department and in charge of promoting their designs through a series of exhibitions. Perriand described the work as being highly collaborative between Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret (a Swiss architect and cousin to Le Corbusier) and herself; they were “three fingers on one hand.”
In one 1927 drawing, Corbusier outlined typical sitting and lounging postures without proposing actual designs. Inventing the furniture itself would be Perriand’s job. In a 1928 sketch, she accommodated the lounging posture in the famous B306 drawing a movable chaise rocking in a steel cradle.
In 1928 she designed three chairs from Corbusier’s principles that the chair was a “machine for sitting,” and that each of the three would accommodate different positions for different tasks. At Corbusier’s request a chair was made for conversation: the B301 sling back chair; another for relaxation: the LC2 Grand Confort chair; and the last for sleeping: the B306 chaise lounge. The chairs had tubular steel frames. In the prototype models, the steel was painted; in production, the steel tubes were nickel- or chromium-plated.
My favourite piece of Perriands is the B306 Chaise Longue. I think it is perfection visualised. Perriand was familiar with Thonet’s bentwood chairs and used them often not only for inspiration but also in her designs. It’s for this reason that the B306 bears some similarity to Thonet’s bentwood rocker. The legs unintentionally resembled horse hooves and Perriand took this and ran with it, finding pony skin from Parisian furriers to cover the chaise. Considering how much of icon this piece is today, only 170 were sold in the first decade. And back then they didn’t retail for a whopping £4,000, which is a tad over my budget. Perriand wrote in a memoir:
“While our chair designs were directly related to the position of the human body…they were
also determined by the requirements of architecture, setting, and prestige”
There has always been a cloud over Perriands career as for many decades, Le Corbusier basically “owned” authorship of the several chairs and projects on which they collaborated.
And in theory, you can understand why. This was Le Corbusier!! It was his name on the door, his studio that the work was made at, and it was his vision. He was famous and recognized. But in the end, it led to Perriand receiving little credit during her career for her so many many achievements.
Even today, the message is still unclear. The Italian manufacturer Cassina gives her design credit on four pieces of furniture, yet the collection is titled “Le Corbusier collection”. In Museums all over the world, it is common to see Le Corbusier named as the designer or artist responsible.
The V&A lists the designers as Le Corbusier, Jeanneret and Perriand, but he is as the top, and they even state: “Le Corbusier designed this adjustable chaise longue as a flexible piece of furniture for reading and relaxation”. The MOMA only recently managed to give her credit for her ‘revolving armchair’ from Le Corbusier which she designed prior to their working together. And in 1965 the B306 Chaise Longue was renamed LC4.
Her drawings, notes, and her interviews suggest that Perriand solved the problems Le Corbusier defined. “Le Corbusier waited impatiently for me to bring the furniture to life,” she wrote in 1991 for her autobiography. In a 1932 letter, Le Corbusier confirmed that the “entire responsibility” of realizing the “domestic equipment” of his buildings was hers:
“Madame Perriand possesses exceptional qualities of inventiveness, initiative and realization in this domain.”
In the 1930s, Perriand’s focus became more egalitarian and populist. With Chrome becoming too expensive, she began to work with more traditional materials such as wood and cane which were more affordable. She also became more heavily involved with many leftist organizations such as the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, and Maison de la Culture.
Unfortunately, her views had become too intertwined with her work and her affinities towards communism for some. Her views had moved her away from the “machines” concept that Le Corbusier had hired her to produce and so after 10 years together, they parted ways.
Perriand was then starting to emerge as an activist designer. Her giant photo montage mural of 1936, “The Great Misery of Paris,” was protesting the housing problems, pollution, bread lines and income inequality brought on by the machine and industrialization.
The woman who had defiantly sported a necklace of ball bearings in the ’20s turned away from the machine toward nature. And supposed that nature was the best source of inspiration and was free to all. After working with Le Corbusier for a decade, she “stepped out of his shadow into a successful career of her own.”
The Japan and back again years // 1940-1960’s
After finishing her work with Le Corbusier, she worked with Jean Prouvé designing more economical and utilitarian objects. However, when war broke out in 1939 their focus was shifted to designing military barracks and furnishings for temporary housing, some of which are still being used today.
In 1940 France surrendered to the Germans and as they approached to occupy Paris, Perriand left France and Prouvé to go to Japan. She travelled as an official advisor to the government on raising the standards of design in Japanese industry to develop products for the West. The country had little history of chairs and furniture but had a rich tradition of natural materials like bamboo and rattan as well as immense craft knowledge and extremely high skill levels. It was from this that Perriand started to advise on array of objects that would cater more to the international market.
However, on her return journey to France she was detained and exiled in Vietnam for the remaining duration of the war. This experience affected her positively though and she came out of it with a new outlook, and a knowledge of Eastern Design.
After war had ended in 1945 there was increased interest in using new methods and materials for mass production of furniture. Manufacturers of materials such as Formica, plywood, aluminium, and steel sponsored the salons of the ‘Société des artistes décorateurs’ and all the designers who exhibited work there were in high demand for their use of the processes and production capabilities.
On returning to Paris in 1945 Charlotte Perriand was in high demand and she worked on many projects from ski resorts to student housing. She often refused to furnish buildings designed by other architects as she wanted complete authority on the environment from start to finish. However, she was eager to work with Jean Prouvé who collaborated with her on and produced several of her designs from 1951 to 1953.
Since returning to France she was keen to get back to work on producing mass-produced furniture. She knew Le Corbusier was working on the Unité d’Habitation housing project in Marseille, and so approached him for help. She received yet another patronising comment as he stated:
“I do not think it would be interesting, now that you’re a mother … to oblige you to be present in the atelier,”
He then went on to write. “On the other hand, I would be very happy if you could contribute to the practical structural aspects of the settings which are within your domain, that is to say the knack of a practical woman, talented and kind at the same time.” He would ultimately have Perriand develop the compact modular kitchens for the acclaimed Marseille project – and claim sole authorship of the result.
Le Corbusier had long advocated an open plan free of bearing walls, and within it, Perriand furnished a constellation of objects that made space “sing,” as she liked to say. Furniture came off the wall and belonged to the floor in free-form configurations no longer anchored to a fireplace and bourgeois rules of symmetry. A small kitchen with movable counters and sliding shelves exemplifies her own signature idea of furniture and fixtures that move, dating from her own 1927 apartment-studio, with its swivelling chairs, sliding front door, and extendable dining table.
After the kitchen project was finished she decided to once again focus her efforts on mass-production but despite her best efforts to engage with industrial production, none of Perriand’s designs ever made it to the affordable mass market. She had hoped her chaise longue, with its curved tubular steel frame, would go down this route, but discussions with a manufacturer came to nothing.
“Our attempts at talks with the Peugeot bicycle company resulted in half an hour of total incomprehension,”
Ultimately, she had wanted to move on and defame her career without the help of others and did so with many of her architecture projects coming after the end of the war. Some of her work include the Meribel ski resort, The League of Nations building in Geneva and the remodelling of Air France’s offices in Paris, Tokyo and London, which I am particularly fond of.
Her goal was to draw the attention of potential clients walking on the street into the stores through stunning interiors seen through super clear and vast windows. Before the internet and independent ticket sellers the only way to book flights was over the phone or in store and the store was definitely attracting attention from passers-by. In the golden age of flight, the allure of those big windows, the sign, the furniture inside must have made anyone want to walk in.
Les Arcs, the 1960s ski resort which was master planned by a group of architects under the leadership of Perriand. While a previous plan had proposed a number of towers, her idea was to nestle the buildings in the folds of the mountain, arranging the apartments in a series of staggered terraces cascading down the hillside, making them almost invisible after snowfall. This makes the buildings perfectly harmonious and in tune with their environment.
To the south, the setback of the levels provides every dwelling with a generous terrace to catch the sun, while to the north the sloping facade protects the apartments from the snow. Despite accommodating more than 1,000 residents, the complex didn’t require lifts, and it adapted to the hillside contours with minimum impact on the site.
Charlotte Perriand died on the 27th October, 1999 in Paris. Working in Le Corbusier’s studio, she gained experience across all disciplines of design and culminated in her architecture projects towards the end of her career. She was an unstoppable design force and I am glad that we are finally letting her gain the recognition that she thoroughly deserves.
Below is a great video on Les Arcs that I definitely recommend watching if you are interested!!
Disclaimer: This blog is a non-profit educational facility for a worldwide community. All images are taken under the Education Fair Use title. All images used are sourced by us for use in educating and informing our audience to the best of our ability. If any persons or agencies find us in fault and would like us to stop using their image/s please contact us directly and we will remove the image indefinitely without issue.