First Lady

Charlotte Perriand was to have been awarded an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art last autumn, but sadly could not receive the honour, because, at 93, she is bedridden with back trouble and is no longer strong enough to travel or receive guests. However, if the award can be carried to her bedside in Paris this year, the occasion will coincide with the opening of the Design Museum’s retrospective exhibition of her work this autumn.

Negotiations with Perriand’s daughter, photographer Pernette Perriand, and others are currently determining how far the new show will modify and expand the original show, Charlotte Perriand: Un Art de Vivre, which took place ten years ago at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. The intention is to expand it with new loans and more recent work, including a Tea Pavilion for UNESCO in the south of France. Perriand herself is to be closely involved in the design, which Design Museum director Paul Thompson aims to present as “her latest work”. And British designer Dinah Casson has also been approached to collaborate with Perriand.

The prevailing view on Perriand is that she is “rather important” in the story of modern furniture design, but ultimately “not really as original as Eileen Gray”. But Gray, who was more than 20 years older than Perriand and a beneficiary of considerable inherited wealth, was only “rediscovered” in the Sixties, when in her 90s; so it is possible that the same thing might happen to Perriand – especially when her autobiography appears, since there has been a relative lack of documentation of her life and work.

Perriand was born in Paris in 1903, the only child of a tailor, and spent much of her childhood with relatives in the French countryside. These childhood experiences gave her a love of nature and the simple life, which found expression in her work later. In 1920 she won a scholarship to the Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. One year after graduating, in 1926, she exhibited independently at the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, showing a table, chair and bookcase crafted in wood. The following year, she shifted from wood to metal. Her tubular steel and aluminium bar sous le toit caused a stir, and provided her with an entrée into the studio of Le Corbusier, where she worked for the next ten formative years.

Perriand’s association with Le Corbusier was both her making as a designer and a major obstacle to her being recognised as a designer in her own right, despite the fact that in 1929 she had been named by Léon Deshairs, the librarian of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, as one of the three très jeunes in a list of the ten most influential French designers since 1900.

Indeed, it is primarily on the basis of the work which Perriand did with Le Corbusier that the RCA has offered her its honorary doctorate. The status of the tables, chairs, and storage units which they designed together as “equipment” for the modern apartment is justification enough. Yet the question of authorship has always fascinated the critics. Mary McLeod (AA Files No 15, Summer 1987) emphasises the feminine qualities of the famous curvaceous chaise-longue, photographed with Perriand in languorous pose – although Le Corbusier maintained he was thinking about the “cowboy from the Wild West, smoking his pipe, his feet in the air higher than his head, against the chimney piece…” Neither Le Corbusier or Perriand ever discussed the nature of their collaboration.

According to Zeev Aram of Aram Designs, the relationship between Perriand, Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret was “a happy symbiosis”, providing a context which enabled Perriand to flourish. He says Perriand once told him that she did most of the work, but not the design. It is often suggested that her most important contribution was a softening, enriching influence on Le Corbusier’s austere brand of modernism; as Aram puts it, she was the “humane face of Corbusier and Jeanneret”, although during the ten years she spent working with them her commitment to Modernism, particularly the use of metal and glass and the elimination of decoration, was unflagging.

Nevertheless, in 1937 she left the studio, “out of a desire for freedom”, as she puts it in Charlotte Perriand: Un Art de Vivre, 1985. Two years previously she had started using wood in her work again, with a “chair for conversation” which was hand-crafted rather than machine-made. It was also the beginning of the war, and of the rift (later healed) caused by Le Corbusier’s decision to work for the Vichy collaboration, while Perriand and Jeanneret worked for the Resistance designing aluminium prefabricated housing. The war years were clearly not the right time to try to launch a career as an independent designer in Paris, and in 1940 Perriand accepted an invitation from the Japanese ministry of commerce and trade to go to Japan as an advisor on arts and crafts.

Perriand’s visit to Japan and subsequently to Indochina, before returning to Paris in 1946, consolidated the change of aesthetic which had begun to emerge in her work in the mid-1930s. In Japan in 1941 she exhibited a new version of the chaise-longue made in bamboo by local craftsmen. Although committed to the principles of simplicity, functional efficiency, and clarity of domestic organisation, her furniture took on an organic, ethnic appearance.

Whether due to the change in her direction, or, as it is often suggested, simply due to her gender, Perriand’s work as a designer after 1950 is not well known. Aram believes that although she produced many “very nice and very humane” pieces over the next four decades, there was “nothing really strong”, and she didn’t make her mark. Once detached from Le Corbusier’s studio, “she didn’t have the ingredients to ferment it.”

Inevitably, the work she did on the kitchen prototypes for Le Corbusier’s Unié d’Habitation at Marseilles is better known than the furniture she designed with Jean Prouvé, produced by the Galerie Steph Simon between 1955 and 1974. A large part of her work consisted of fitting out holiday homes, ski chalets and hotels, in which she continued to pursue her ideas about unitarisation and standardisation.

For critic Charlotte Benton, Perriand’s continued work on modular furniture and minimal design after abandoning her Machine Age ideology of materials represents an important area which is little known because, like her work in the Far East, it “just hasn’t been adequately explored.” Undoubtedly part of the reason for this lack of interest is the perceived eclecticism of the work, and its predominantly domestic character, neither of which particularly appeal to critics.

Perriand’s gradual return to the international public eye began in the Eighties, when she became consultant at Cassina for the manufacture of reproductions of the furniture she had designed 50 years before with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret, having outlived her colleagues. In pure design terms, these are probably the best pieces she ever produced; but it is Perriand’s piecemeal work over the years which presents a more holistic view of the way in which we could rethink the organisation and design of the domestic environment.

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