Updated: Apr 14, 2021
This iconic photo from 1929, of Charlotte Perriand relaxing in the chaise longue that she, Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, collaborated on has been written about so much it deserves its own post.
Strike a Pose
To my un- academic eye this photo of the young Charlotte Perriand posing in a skirt on the lounge is quite provocative. While neither her attire nor the pose in and of itself are remarkable, when the pose is combined with a skirt it becomes much more charged. Because it looks as if her skirt may fall away at any minute revealing the entire leg, there is a certain “frisson” or sexiness to the image. (Had I not known that this was Charlotte Perriand and that it was the LC4 chair, I would have thought this was a classic bauhaus image, possibly taken by Florence Henri.) Anyone who has ever worn a skirt knows it would be uncomfortable because of the apprehension that the skirt might fall away…If the pose had been different, with the chair in the parallel position and her feet below and she was reading a book for instance, or if she had been wearing pants, the effect would be quite different. The dramatic lighting and shadow also contribute to the sexy film noire feeling .
The sleeping Beauty
And then there is the head turned away from the camera…creating a voyeuristic tension. We have accidentally stumbled upon a young “sleeping” beauty in a private moment of relaxation, only this sleeping princess is resting on a chrome and pony skin modernist lounge, rather than an ivy covered bed. Clearly there are also references to the genre of painting (favored by Watteau among many), of a beautiful woman in her “boudoir”. (It is a modern version of a chaise lounge after all. It’s meant for lounging.) But again, with the face turned away from the viewer it brings to mind the erotic photos of Florence Henri, in which her passive subject’s eyes are either turned away or closed.
Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner
In her essay, Sexuality and Space Beatriz Colemina, describes (the positioning -next to a wall) of the model (Charlotte Perriand) as “almost an attachment to the wall. She sees nothing.” (1) as one example (of many) of Le Corbusier’s sexism, portraying women as passive objects rather than human beings with personality, humor or agency. According to author Mary McLeod who interviewed Madame Perriand in 1997, she was infuriated by this interpretation and went “ballistic”, (2) nearly shutting down the interview when she mistakenly thought that Ms. McLeod was the author of this interpretation. In fact Charlotte Perriand staged the photo herself with Pierre Jeanneret(who took the photo) as publicity for the chair, which was exhibited in
“Equipment for Dwelling” in 1929. Le Corbusier was in South America at the time, and had no part in staging this particular photo. Charlotte Perriand told Mary McLeod that she chose to turn her head away from the camera to emphasize the chair, rather than herself. (3)
Just Don't Call It Furniture-
It's Equipment For Dwelling
It’s also important to note that although we now take for granted that furniture is not explicitly gendered, (although some design is considered more feminine and some more masculine, it is not described or presented as “men’s” furniture or “women’s” furniture) this was not the case in 1929. Prior to this point interior design and furniture were often gendered, with suites of furniture and rooms designed and marketed specifically for women and the same for men. Many architects designed homes with separate sets of rooms for the husband of the house versus the wife. The Corbusier studio was trying to promote the idea of a universal, machine-age aesthetic of stripped down chrome furniture that was just as appropriate for women as men. So it's understandable that it was important to show a woman in the lounge. But as Ms. McLeod so aptly points out about the photo in her essay, New Designs For Living “looking at the exposed legs and stylish, fitted attire, it is hard not to suspect a certain ‘coquettishness’ in her gesture.”(4) Ironically most of the modernist chrome and leather furniture, originally designed for the home, often by a woman, is now associated with the masculine lobbies of mid-century corporations such as the Segrams building. No doubt another essay that needs to be written.
Beatriz Colemina Sexuality and Space, Princeton Papers on Architecture 1997
Mary McLeod, edit. Charlotte Perriand : An Art of Living Abrahms 2003
Jacques Barsac, Sébastien Cherruet, Pernette Perriand Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World Gallimard, 2019
Check out the 2019 exhibit on Charlotte Perriandat the Louis Vuitton Foundation here
Correspondence with Mary McLeod 2020
McLeod,Footnote 36 p.269