Charlotte Perriand. Designer. Socialist. Pioneer
Although Charlotte Perriand is most well known for her collaborations with Le Corbusier, she was a formidable woman in her own right and was never going to stay in the back round to Le Corbusier according to Cristina Grajales, who represented her work and knew her well. Ambitious and incredibly talented she went on to have a diverse and incredibly long career in interior architecture. She designed everything from dormitory and corporate interiors, (including the kitchen and bathrooms in Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation) to large scale hospitality projects, corporate interiors and temporary architecture.
Charlotte Perriand was a socialist, and the conviction that good design could improve the quality of life for everyone was an important underpinning of her work. Her work was also charaterized by the idea of l’art du vivre or the art of living, not through wealth and conspicuous consumption but through access to nature, space, and living in harmony with one’s surroundings. This belief manifested itself in her work through her use of simple and rustic design solutions that employed local craft traditions.
She was born and raised in Paris where both parents were employed as crafts-people for the Haute Couture Industry. She demonstrated an affinity for the creative arts early on and was encouraged by her parents to attend the l’Union des Arts Decoratifs. At the school she was instantly recognized for her talent and selected by her instructors to exhibit at the various decorative art expositions in Paris. She started out exhibiting Art Deco interiors but became somewhat of an overnight sensation and attracted the attention of Le Corbusier with her modernist chrome and mirrored interior “Bar in the Attic” exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1927. Clearly a woman after my own heart.
Bar in the Attic
Although the bar was basically a re-creation of Perriand’s own apartment she shared with her
husband, it was inspired by the craze for cocktails, Jazz, and modernity. With her cropped hair worn in a Josephine Baker style and her necklace made of chrome ball bearings, Charlotte was very much a modern woman of her time and the apartment she designed for herself and her husband epitomized this modernity. Stylish and fearless.
While other designers ( including her friend Pierre Chareau) were also presenting bars, Charlotte was the first woman to do so. Her apartment was located in the left bank, then the heart of the Parisian bohemians and avant garde. It was a classic machine age apartment bar in chrome and steel, very much along the lines of Le Corbusier”s Machine for Living, which Charlotte was clearly influenced by .
"We don't embroider cushions in My studio!"
Despite rebuffing her previous attempts at seeking employment in his studio with the lovely response " We don't embroider cushions in my studio!" (1) Le Corbusier hired Charlotte on the spot in 1927 after viewing her Bar in the Attic. She began working in his studio (without pay) continuing to work for him until 1937. (2) In 1928 Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret collaborated on three chair designs which became block busters for the studio and are now considered design classics : le fauteil grand confort, le chaise longue basculant and le siege a dossier basculant. *one has to wonder- was Charlotte remunerated in any way for her contributions to these iconic pieces of furniture, as it's unlikely she was paid while working at the studio at this time?
By 1937 Charlotte Perriand had become involved with the communist movement in France and the Popular Front, and her politics put her at odds with Le Corbusier, who clearly embraced a business model that at best took advantage of his employees if not out right defrauded them of their rightful pay.(3) Although she decided to branch out on her own, she continued to collaborate with Le Corbusier,Jean Prouve, Junzo Sakakura and others. In the early forties right as the Germans invaded Paris she moved to Japan where she collaborated on projects with Junzo Sakakura and Kunio Maekawa, both of whom she met in Corb's studio. (She and her first husband divorced in 1930 and she remarried Jacques Martin with whom she had a daughter Pernette in 1944.) After the war she returned to Corbusier to work on the interiors for his famed L’Unite d’Habitation. (Hopefully she got paid this time.)
In the late sixties Charlotte turned to the mountains of France for the largest project of her career, the interior design for several massive ski resorts. As the ski craze came of age, the French government decided to invest in their own natural resources in a bid to lure some of this lucrative market to France and to make skiing more accessible. In 1965 she began working on the interior design for a massive series of ski resorts called Les Arcs and continued to work on this project until 1985! It was a dream come true for Charlotte,combining her love of design with her love of the mountains and nature. In addition to modular interior for mass housing, Charlotte also worked on corporate interiors for Air France and other major corporations. She continued to collaborate with Junzo Sakakura ( or Saka as she called him) and Jean Prouve throughout her career.
Her collaboration with Jean Prouve is perhaps the more widely known aspect of her career. It produced many of the famous mid-century pieces that are now highly sought after by collectors and museums. According to Cristina Grajales, who represented Madame Perriand's work at gallery 1950, and currently at her gallery, Madame Perriand and Prouve were extremely close. Although there was great love and affection between her and Prouve, Madame Perriand fought "extremely hard" to ensure that she was credited for the design, while Prouve was credited with the execution of the pieces that they collaborated on. Madame Perriand continued to work until she died in 1999 at the age of 96. After her death she was finally recognized for her authorship of many iconic designs.
In 1985 the Musee des Arts Decoratifs held a retrospective of her work ,in 1997 the Architecture League of New York exhibited her work and the Brooklyn Museum of Art awarded her the Modernism Design Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2019 the Louis Vuitton Foundation held another retrospective of her work but as of yet no major American institution has exhibited her work. What's up with that MoMA?
Visit the Cristina Grajales Gallery, which specializes in masterpieces of the twentieth centry as well as future classics of the twenty first here
Charlotte Perriand's furniture has been re-issued and is available through Cassina.
While you may have missed the exhibit of Charlotte Perriand's work at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, you can still purchase the catalogue here
Thirsty for More? Celebrate the life and work of Charlotte Perriand in style with a French 75. Get the recipe here
Mary McLeod et al, Charlotte Perriand: an Art of Living
Charlotte and Clementine Fiell, Women in Design
(1) An Art of Living, p.31
(2) Ibid p.36
(3) Ibid p.75
It is important to note that the "tradition" of not paying young architects for their work is not restricted to those who work for masters such as Le Corbusier and FLW but is still commonplace today. This is an abusive business practice restricting the field of architecture to only the fortunate few who have the resources to simultaneously pay room and board,
(and possibly tuition) often in expensive cities without getting paid. It is my opinion that this "tradition" has had the effect of devalue-ing the profession as a whole, resulting in lower salaries throughout, and contributing to the current lack of racial diversity within the industry.
(In fact I may know of a particular architect who, back in her salad days, was required to cater her boss' fiftieth birthday party, along with the rest of the studio. The "payment" for spending a Saturday stuffing mushrooms and wrapping prosciutto around melon was being allowed to attend the party and mix with the attending "luminaries"-once there were no longer any canapes to serve. But I digress.)