Charlotte Perriand’s life in design: “She refused to confine women to a closed kitchen”

We take a look at the life and work of 20th century French designer Charlotte Perriand, whose modernist career is the subject of a blockbuster new Design Museum exhibition.

The first thing holidaymakers do as they approach Les Arcs in Savoie, France, is park their car well away from the mountain. This rule has remained unquestioned and unchanged since the ski resort opened its first doors in 1968. It was put in place by its designer, Charlotte Perriand, and to this day, no one dares to rethink the vision.

In her six-decade career Perriand was a heavyweight in 20th century design, bringing her modernist and humanist approach to furniture and interiors projects around the world. Her extensive body of work is the subject of a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum. The Modern Life charts the rise of the designer, whose work helped to shape how we exist in our homes today.

A reconstruction of Perriand’s Paris apartment at the beginning of the exhibition. Credit: Felix Speller

“A natural collaborator and synthesiser”

The young Perriand cut her teeth working with famed Swiss-French architect and designer Le Corbusier in her native France. She earned a place in his studio at just 24. Other collaborations saw her work and form life-long friendships with the likes of Pierre Jeanneret and Jean Prouvé. She was, according to Design Museum chief curator Justin McGuirk, a “natural collaborator and synthesiser”.

In her day, however, the calibre of her collaborators often overshadowed Perriand’s own talent. Nowadays thankfully, Perriand’s work is regarded with the admiration it deserves – her furniture pieces are especially highly prized by collectors.

The Modern Life is split into the three distinct elements and periods of Perriand’s back catalogue: The Machine Age, Nature and the Synthesis of the Arts, and Modular Design for Modern Living.

The Chaise Longue Basculante. Credit: Felix Speller

Sitting inside “the world of Perriand”

The Machine Age, as the name suggests, explores Perriand’s early design career in which she worked with and manipulated metal for her furniture pieces.

Among the work included is replica of her own studio apartment in Saint-Sulpice, Paris. The tight squeeze of the space had a lasting effect on the designer, the exhibition explains, igniting a lifelong appreciation for storage and multi-use spaces.

This installation is one of several room recreations introduced into the space by Assemble, the exhibition’s 3D design team. Others include a reconstruction of the set designed by Perriand and Le Corbusier for the 1929 Salon d’Automne, a section of offices designed in 1957 for Air France’s London branch, and a bedroom in the Maison du Mexique student residence in Paris from 1952.

“[We] exhibited Perriand’s designs in conversation with one another,” says Assemble. “Perriand often designed large room recreations to display her creations meaning that her furniture particularly, was always shown among and in juxtaposition with other objects. We echo this by establishing a series of interior rooms throughout the exhibition, blurring the boundary between full scale recreations.”

Among chairs and tables and beds, these spaces also showcase Perriand’s commitment to proper storage. Her characteristic wall-sized bookcases, which are found throughout the exhibition, show this writ large. The inclusion of scale replicas of these allows visitors to sit within “the world of Perriand”, the museum explains.

Bamboo chairs inspired by her time in Japan. Credit: Felix Speller

“The twists and turns of the modernist movement”

She furthered her exploration of metalwork at Le Corbusier’s studio, where she developed a series of tubular steel chairs. Among them was the piece she is perhaps best known for, the Chaise Longue Basculante, which visitors can see in all stages of its life, pre- and post-manufacture.

But Perriand would pivot from her machine aesthetic to more natural forms as the 1930s developed. This change mirrored “the twists and turns of the modernist movement” itself, according to McGuirk.

Inspired by collecting and photographing objects she found in nature, Perriand’s work took on an “organic” quality, according to the museum. In this section, two imposing, naturally-formed wooden desks bookend the visitor journey, which is also punctuated by natural fragments – logs, sticks, driftwood – from Perriand’s own archive.

Natural materials overtook metal in this period, and Perriand was able to explore this further in her travels around Japan and later Vietnam. Here, she fused her European modernism with the heritage crafting practices of the two countries. As the exhibition explains, bamboo became a favourite material for the designer.

Throughout the exhibition, Perriand’s pieces are displays on calcium silicate blocks. “[These] are dry stacked to form a variety of platforms, providing a somewhat brutal yet pragmatic contrast to the elegance of Perriand’s furniture and a nod to her pioneering interest in industrial materials, and modularity,” says Assemble.

Graphic designers APFEL created an accompanying system for captioning whereby each sign, made from a thin metal sheet, simply slots in between blocks. Constructed without any fixings the majority of the exhibition therefore can be repurposed, with the blocks intended for use in a permanent setting after the show closes.

A picture of the open kitchen Perriand pioneered

“She was always able to convince people”

The sum of the lessons of the previous two, the final section of the exhibition shows Perriand’s work after she returned to France. The work displayed in Modular Design for Modern Living unites Perriand’s early exploration into innovative space use, and her later interest in the environment and natural materials.

It’s here that visitors get to see the Les Arcs project broken down – quite literally. In the centre of the gallery sits a lone resin-moulded bathroom module, which Perriand designed bespoke for the project. These were assembled off-site, to make the most of the seven-month window each year where building work could actually take place on the otherwise snowy mountaintop.

This approach was, according to Les Arcs design spokesperson Cecile Romualdo, revolutionary for the 1960s. But it certainly wasn’t the only element Perriand went against the grain to introduce to the resort. Romualdo says the designer’s feminist beliefs, for example, are one reason why open-plan kitchens became so popular at the time.

“As a feminist, Perriand refused to confine women to a closed kitchen while they were on holiday, as they would be in their usual life,” she says. “She created these kitchen-bar areas so that women could exchange and share moments of reunion in the studio with their family.”

Ever confident in her decisions, Romualdo says Perriand told staff at Les Arcs to personally call her whenever a guest had a problem with the open-plan kitchen space so she could convince them otherwise. “She was always able to convince people in the end,” Romualdo says.

Les Arcs

“She had a philosophical vision of her work”

Alongside being a feminist, Perriand’s socialist and humanist politics also found their way into the resort. For example, Perriand’s insistence towards groups of flats rather than individual chalets served two purposes, Romualdo says.

Firstly, it stopped the mountain from being overcrowded with manmade buildings which would ruin the surrounding environment. Secondly, this approach gave everyone who stayed at Les Arcs the same view, regardless of the price of the room.

Perriand was 65 when she took on the Les Arcs project, which took 20 years to finish. She was not the only designer working on the resort, but effectively became a leader among them, Romualdo says. “I was able to talk to Roger Godino, Guy Rey Millet, Gaston Regairaz and Yvon Blanc, the brother of Robert Blanc [the men that worked alongside Perriand], when they were all still alive,” Romualdo adds. “All were unanimous: Charlotte, as they called her, was the soul of their group.”

Les Arcs was one of many ski resort projects that Perriand took on later in her career, but it stands out as different from the rest, Romualdo says. To this day, the studios that remain authentic to her vision are continuously booked up by guests in search of the “Perriand experience”, she adds.

“She had a philosophical vision of her work and that’s why she is still so modern today,” she says. “Because it is fully in tune with the concerns of our time.”

Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life opens 19 June at the Design Museum. Head to the museum website for more information. 

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