design

Charlotte Perriand: The little-known 20th century designer who could see our homes of the future

Updated 18th June 2021
Credit: Felix Speller/The Design Museum
Charlotte Perriand: The little-known 20th century designer who could see our homes of the future
Written by Fiona Sinclair Scott, CNNLondon
The story of the late Charlotte Perriand is an inspiring tale of an adventurous designer whose ideas and creations left a lasting mark on homes around the world. But most people will have never heard of the pioneering maker -- her place in history often overshadowed by her male contemporaries.
Starting off as a young furniture designer in Paris in the late 1920s, Perriand was one of very few women in the field at a time when society was often unwelcoming to working women. Le Corbusier, a giant of modern architecture, famously dismissed her when she first turned up at his office in search of a job after completing her studies. "We don't do embroidery here," he quipped condescendingly.
A year later, Le Corbusier reneged on his snap judgement when he saw Perriand's work on display at an annual fair for young artists, the Salon d'Automne, in 1929. Her installation, "Bar sous le Toit" (Bar in the Attic), a simple staging of modern, industrial-looking interior design, caught his eye and was her ticket to join his team.
During her time with Le Corbusier and his clique of creatives, Perriand would become instrumental in the design of one of the most iconic pieces of Modernist furniture to date: the B306 tubular steel chaise longue, also known as the "chaise lounge basculante" for its tilted design. An example of this piece, still coveted by today's collectors of modernist design, is on display in a new retrospective of her work at London's Design Museum. The exhibition follows a 2019 show about Perriand at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, and is one of the few celebrations of her work at such a scale.
"Chaise longue basculante" (Adjustable reclining chair), 1928 (Cassina).
"Chaise longue basculante" (Adjustable reclining chair), 1928 (Cassina). Credit: Felix Speller/The Design Museum
Born in 1903, she lived from the start to the end of the last century, passing away in October 1999. A great visionary, Perriand had a knack for dreaming up ways in which people would want to live in the future. Many of her creations feel particularly pertinent when viewed through today's lens.
Better to spend the day out in the sun, than dusting your useless objects
Charlotte Perriand
In a series of drawings titled "Travail et Sport," (Work and Sport) published in interior design manual "Répertoire du goût moderne" in 1929, Perriand proposed a multifunctional space that could easily transform from a home to an office to a gym. She was solving a problem many of us would face more than 20 years after her death, as we sheltered in place during pandemic-related lockdowns, but at the time she was simply thinking about modern living.
Lead curator of the Design Museum show, Justin McGuirk, said Perriand understood that the future would call for more houses -- and more affordable housing at that. She was thinking about how to "take people out of poor-quality or slum housing, even in places like Paris," he explained during a phone interview, "and she (knew) that there was not going to be unlimited amounts of space for these people, that apartments might have to be small, and they have to be multifunctional."
"Travail et Sport" (Work and Sport) model, 1927, byCharlotte Perriand (Archives Charlotte Perriand).
"Travail et Sport" (Work and Sport) model, 1927, byCharlotte Perriand (Archives Charlotte Perriand). Credit: Felix Speller/The Design Museum
This desire to create good living spaces is one of the defining pillars of Perriand's work. According to Esme Hawes, assistant curator at the Design Museum, the appreciation that design is about providing a service to people was a recurring theme of Perriand's practice.
"A lot of her design is really focused around making things accessible and improving people's lives, and their quality of life, through design," Hawes said in an interview at the exhibition, "and I think that's something that a lot of female designers do." Noting that women in design often have to work harder to establish themselves, Hawes suggested "they feel they really have to use their platform" once they earn it.
Charlotte Perriand with Le Corbusier holding a plate like a halo in the background, 1928
Charlotte Perriand with Le Corbusier holding a plate like a halo in the background, 1928 Credit: ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021 / © AChP
Perriand did just that. Over the course of her decades-long career she designed furniture, student accommodation, military quarters, private homes, offices and even a 1960s ski resort, in Les Arcs, France, which is still in use today.
Perriand parted ways with Le Corbusier after about eight years (some believe their disparate political beliefs caused their relationship to break down -- she was a steadfast communist, while her boss was apparently more sympathetic with the far right -- others figure she wanted to step out from behind Le Corbusier).
In 1940, Perriand received a then-extraordinary invitation to travel to Japan to work with the Department of Trade Promotion to help enhance Japanese products and increase sales to the West. While her role mostly saw her consulting and guiding local designers and artisans, she was deeply influenced by the two years she spent in the country -- most notably in the materials she used.
Les Arcs ski resort in France, 1967-69.
Les Arcs ski resort in France, 1967-69. Credit: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2021 / © AChP
According to McGuirk, Perriand had previously been dogmatic in her use of metal and modern materials that were seen as the "language of the future, the language of the Machine Age." But in Japan, she became "hugely impressed by the quality of (Japanese) craftsmanship," he said, explaining that she introduced materials like bamboo into her work, and eventually found "an interesting compromise between two contrasting worlds."
She also became enthralled by Japanese homes and their clever use of space, which underscored her belief in what McGuirk described as "flexible emptiness" -- the idea that you can live well without lots of furniture, as long as they are highly functional pieces. "Better to spend the day out in the sun, than dusting your useless objects," she wrote in the book "L'art d'habiter," published in 1950.
Perriand was informed by the belief that women should not spend hours at home doing housework. A keen sportswoman and traveler, she would have had little time for domestic duties herself.
While Perriand was finding compromises, the rest of the world was still at war. Tensions between France and Japan, an ally of Germany, were heating up, and Perriand, while trying to get back to Paris via the United States, ended up in French Indochina (now Vietnam), where she spent several years until the end of the war.
Once back in France, she solidified another quality she is often remembered for: her ability to collaborate and synthesize. She continued to design with Jean Prouvé, another important figure in French modernist and prefabricated design, who she had begun working with before the war. The Design Museum exhibition also notes her close link to artist Ferdinand Léger (a number of his artworks hang in the space around her furniture). Ironically, despite her openness to collaborate and the impression she made on the men she worked with, many of their names remain better-known than hers. But those who know her work have no issue explaining just how influential she was.
Bookcase for the Maisondu Mexique student's room, 1952.
Bookcase for the Maisondu Mexique student's room, 1952. Credit: Felix Speller/The Design Museum
The easiest way to understand Perriand's work -- and to put it into context of today -- is to look at a very simple design concept: storage. As the exhibition catalog notes, it might seem banal to focus on storage, but her many cabinets and shelves are a tribute to her ethos: practical, modern, multifunctional and essential to everyday living. She often used large, modular shelving units to divide rooms, a very familiar interior design trick still used in homes and offices today. And echoes of her designs are everywhere -- just walk through Ikea for proof.
The last object on display at the Design Museum show is a very simple piece made by an unknown designer that she purchased in Brazil in the 1960s. It's a green plastic soda bottle that has been transformed into a simple decorative vase. Her attraction to the piece, and the fact that she kept it, speaks volumes about her design values, as summarized by a label on the exhibition wall: "resourceful, intelligent and infused with humanity."
"Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life" is on at the Design Museum in London June 19 - September 5.