One of the most influential furniture designers of the early modern movement, CHARLOTTE PERRIAND (1903-1999) introduced the ‘machine age’ aesthetic to interiors in the steel, aluminium and glass furniture she created at Le Corbusier’s architectural studio in the late 1920s and 1930s. She then continued her experiments with different materials.
When the 24 year old Charlotte Perriand strode into Le Corbusier’s studio at 35 rue de Sèvres, Paris in 1927, and asked him to hire her as a furniture designer, his response was terse. “We don’t embroider cushions here,” he replied and showed her the door. A few months later Le Corbusier apologised. After being taken by his cousin Pierre Jeanneret to see the glacial Bar sous le To?t, or rooftop bar that Perriand had created in glass, steel and aluminium, for the Salon D’Automne exhibition in Paris, Le Corbusier invited her to join his studio.
Once there, Perriand found herself wrapping her legs in newspaper during the winter in a desperate attempt to stay warm. She also forged friendships with the gifted young architects and designers from all over the world who, like her, had jumped at the chance to work for Le Corbusier as an unpaid or, if they were very lucky, poorly paid assistants. Together with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Perriand developed a series of tubular steel chairs, which were then – and are still today – hailed as icons of the machine age.
Those chairs are still her best known work, yet Perriand remained at Le Corbusier’s studio for over a decade and went on to collaborate with the artist Fernand Leger and furniture designer Jean Prouvé. She remained an influential figure in the modern movement until her death in 1999, when she was acclaimed as one of the very few women to have succeeded in that male domain.
Born in 1903, Perriand divided her childhood between Paris, where her father worked as a tailor and her mother as an haute couture seamstress, and her grandparents’ home in the mountainous rural region of Savoie. In 1920, she enrolled as a student at the Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs and studied there for five years. Frustrated by the craft-based approach and Beaux-Arts style championed by the school, Perriand searched for inspiration in the machine aesthetic of the motor cars and bicycles she saw on the Paris streets.
A year after graduation, Perriand married and moved into a rented garret with her husband on Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris. After gutting the apartment, she transformed the largest room into a metal and glass bar, rather than a conventional salon. Determined to avoid working for one of the artisanal furniture manufacturers on Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but despairing of finding a more empathetic way of earning a living in furniture design, Perriand considered studying agriculture, until a friend suggested that she read two books by Le Corbusier, 1923’s Vers une Architecture and 1925’s L’Art Décoratif d’Aujourd’hui. Perriand was so excited that she inveigled a meeting with Le Corbusier to try to persuade him to employ her. Once installed at the rue de Sèvres studio, Perriand refined the machine age aesthetic of her Bar sous le To?t into furniture.
Before Perriand’s arrival, Le Corbusier had furnished his exhibition sets and buildings with carefully selected ready-made furniture, such as the simple bentwood chairs manufactured by the Austrian company Thonet and compact versions of the club chairs made by Maples in London. He had, however, specified exactly what he expected from furniture in his 1925 book L’Art Décoratif d’aujourd’hui by identifying three different types: besoins-types or type-needs; meubles-types or type-furniture; and objets-membres humains or human-limb objects. He defined the latter as: “Extensions of our limbs and adapted to human functions that are. Type-needs, type-functions, therefore type-objects and type-furniture. The human-limb object is a docile servant. A good servant is discreet and self-effacing in order to leave his master free. Certainly, works of art are tools, beautiful tools. And long live the good taste manifested by choice, subtlety, proportion and harmony.”
Perriand proceeded to put Le Corbusier’s principles into practise by developing three chairs with chromium-plated tubular steel bases for two of his 1928 projects: Maison La Roche, a house he was designing in Paris, and a pavilion for his US clients Henry and Barbara Church in the garden of their home outside the city. At Le Corbusier’s request, one chair was designed “for conversation”, this was the B301 sling back chair; another “for relaxation”, the square-shaped and chunkily upholstered LC2 Grand Confort; and a third for sleeping, the elegant B306 chaise longue recliner inspired by the sensual curves of 18th century day-beds. Perriand posed for the publicity shots of the chaise longue with crossed legs, a daringly short (for the era) skirt and a necklace of industrial ball bearings.
Working with Le Corbusier instilled a strict discipline into Perriand as a designer. “The smallest pencil stroke had to have a point,” she later recalled, “to fulfil a need, or respond to a gesture or posture, and to be achieved at mass-production prices.” To that end she attempted to persuade the French company Peugeot to adapt the steel tubing used in its bicycles for furniture. When Peugeot declined, Thonet, the manufacturer of Le Corbusier’s favourite bentwood chairs, was persuaded to produce a series of pieces for the 1929 Salon d’Automne.
Exhibited as Equipment for the Home, the 1929 Salon d’Automne installation was a model apartment conceived as a vision of de luxe modernity. The glass floor was lit from beneath to refract light on to the glass ceiling. All the chairs were made from metal bases with leather or canvas upholstery, the glass-topped table-tube d’avion was supported by a section of bi-plane wingstays and Perriand devised a series of light, portable screens which fulfilled the dual function of dividing the space and providing storage. Delightfully decadent touches were the animal fur flung across the bed and a free-standing shower.
The following year Perriand’s marriage ended and she moved to another attic, this time in Montparnasse, where she would climb out of her toilet window to do gymnastics on the rooftop. Accompanied by friends and colleagues from Le Corbusier’s studio, she made trips to the country to ski, climb, swim and hike, and also travelled to Moscow and Athens for Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) conferences of fellow modernists. During the 1930s she developed furniture and fittings for a succession of Le Corbusier’s architectural projects including the Pavilion Suisse student lodgings at Cité Universitaire and Salvation Army headquarters in Paris as well as his own apartment at the top of a building on rue Nungesser-et-Coli.
Her work continued to evolve and by the mid-1930s she was experimenting with rustic materials, such as wood and cane, inspired by the vernacular furniture of Savoie. By then, such materials seemed as outlandish and as radical, as had her early preference for glass and metal, but Perriand was convinced that they would enable her to realise the goal of developing affordable, functional and appealing mass-manufactured furniture for the masses.
In 1937, Perriand left Le Corbusier’s studio to collaborate with Fernand Leger on a stand at the 1937 Paris Exhibition and then to work on a ski resort in Savoie. When World War II began, she returned to Paris to design prefabricated aluminium buildings with Pierre Jeanneret and Jean Prouvé until, in 1940, a friend from the rue de Sèvres studio arranged for her to travel to Japan as an official advisor on industrial design to the Ministry for Trade and Industry. Perriand set sail from Marseilles and, once in Japan, set about advising the government on how to raise standards of design in Japanese industry in order to develop products for export to the West. When Japan joined the war as a German ally, she tried to return to France but, because of the naval blockade, found herself trapped in Vietnam from 1942 until 1946. During her enforced Vietnamese exile, Perriand studied local techniques of woodwork and weaving. She also married her second husband, Jacques Martin, and gave birth to their daughter, Pernette.
Back in France, Perriand revived her career. Her first project was a ski resort, and in 1947 she worked with Fernand Leger on a hospital and then with Le Corbusier on his Unité d’Habitation apartment building in Marseilles. Perriand’s experiences in Japan and Vietnam continued to influence her work, which combined many of the functional elements of Japanese interiors, such as sliding screens to redefine particular spaces, with the Indochinese finesse in working with natural materials, such as wood and bamboo. These themes recurred for the rest of her career in projects such as her Méribel ski resort and the League of Nations building in Geneva, the remodelling of Air France’s offices in London, Paris and Tokyo, and a continuing collaboration with Jean Prouvé.
Active though Perriand continued to be, she was less visible as an independent designer than as part of Le Corbusier’s studio. Yet towards the end of her life, her reputation revived after a 1985 retrospective at Musée des Arts-Décoratifs in Paris and a 1998 exhibition at the Design Museum. “The most important thing to realise is that what drives the modern movement is a spirit of enquiry, it’s a process of analysis and not a style,” stated Charlotte Perriand in one of her last interviews. “We worked with ideals.”
1903 Born in Paris, where she spends her childhood punctuated by frequent trips to Savoie.
1920 Enrols on a five year furniture design course at the Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs.
1926 Marries her first husband a year after graduation and converts their attic apartment into a ‘machine age’ interior.
1927 Exhibits the Bar sous le Toit filled with tubular steel furniture at the Salon d’Automne. When Le Corbusier sees it, he invites Perriand to join his studio at 35 rue de Sèvres to design furniture and interiors.
1928 Designs three chairs with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret – the LC2 Grand Confort armchair, the B301 reclining chair and B306 chaise longue – for the studio’s architectural projects.
1929 Creates a model modern apartment in glass and tubular steel to be exhibited as Equipement d’Habitation – or Living Equipment – at the Salon d’Automne.
1930 Seperates from her husband and moves to Montparnasse. Travels to Moscow for a CIAM conference and designs fixtures for Pavilion Suisse at Cité Universitaire in Paris.
1932 Starts work on the Salvation Army headquarters project in Paris.
1933 Travels to Moscow and Athens to participate in CIAM conferences.
1934 Designs the furniture and interior fixtures for Le Corbusier’s new apartment on rue Nungesser-et-Coli.
1937 Leaves Le Corbusier’s studio to collaborate with the artist Fernand Leger on a pavilion for the Paris Exhibition and to work on a ski resort in Savoie.
1939 When World War II begins, she leaves Savoie to return to Paris and to design prefabricated buildings with Jean Prouvé and Pierre Jeanneret.
1940 Sails for Japan where she has been appointed as an advisor on industrial design to the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
1942 Forced to leave Japan as an “undesirable alien”, but is trapped by the naval blockade and forced to spend the rest of the war in Vietnam, where she marries her second husband and gives birth to a daughter, Pernette.
1946 Returns to France and revives her career as an independent designer and her collaboration with Jean Prouvé.
1947 Works with Fernand Leger on the design of H?pital Saint-Lo.
1950 Designs a prototype kitchen for Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation apartment building in Marseilles.
1951 Organises the French section of the Milan Triennale exhibition.
1957 Designs the League of Nations building for the United Nations in Geneva.
1959 Works with Le Corbusier and the Brazilian architect Lucio Costa on the interior of their Maison du Brésil at Cité Universitaire in Paris.
1960 Collaborates with Erno Goldfinger on the design of the French Tourist Office on London’s Piccadilly.
1962 Begins a long-running project to design a series of ski resorts in Savoie.
1985 Retrospective of her work at Musée des Arts-Décoratifs in Paris.
1998 Publication of her autobiography, Vie de Création, or Life of Creation, and presentation of a retrospective at the Design Musuem, London.
1999 Charlotte Perriand dies in Paris.