French architect and designer, she aimed to create functional living spaces in the belief that better design helps in creating a better society. In her article “L’Art de Vivre” from 1981 she states: “The extension of the art of dwelling is the art of living—living in harmony with man’s deepest drives and with his adopted or fabricated environment.”
Perriand’s drawing abilities, considered stellar ever since her infancy, caught the attention of her junior-high-school art instructor. At the urging of her mother, Perriand attended the École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs from 1920 to 1925. There, under the tutelage of the school’s artistic director, Henri Rapin (a talented and practicing interior designer), she thrived, and her work showed great promise.
She attended lectures by Maurice Dufrêne, the studio director of La Maîtrise workshop, located at the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris. Because of his association with the store, Dufrêne challenged the students with pragmatic, applicable projects, the results of which could be used by the Galeries Lafayette. Perriand’s schoolwork revealed her to be an adroit designer, and her projects were selected and exhibited at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.
After graduation, greatly encouraged by Dufrêne and Rapin, who had advised her that she “had to show to get known,” Perriand submitted her work to be displayed at numerous exhibitions. Her most-notable entry was in the year 1927, at the Salon d’Automne, with her design Bar sous le toit (“Bar in the Attic”), an installation of furniture, finishes, and a built-in bar. With her use of materials such as nickel along with a bold design, Bar sous le toit revealed Perriand’s preference for an aesthetic that mirrored the age of the machine, and a break with the École’s preference for finely handcrafted objects made of exotic and rare woods. The project was a watershed moment in her career, as Perriand wholeheartedly embraced the use of steel, a medium previously used only by men, as her material of choice to convey newfound expressions of modern design.
We don’t embroider cushions
Perriand read Le Corbusier’s books Vers une architecture (1923; “Towards an Architecture”) and L’Art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (1925; “The Decorative Art of Today”), setting in motion her next endeavour: to work with the author, an innovative and revolutionary architect. She declare to have been “dazzled” by his writings. By Perriand’s account, when she arrived at his atelier with her portfolio in hand, seeking a position, he dismissively told her, “We don’t embroider cushions in my studio.” Not discouraged by his degrading comment, she invited him to the Salon d’Automne to view her work. Le Corbusier, finally recognizing a kindred spirit after seeing her Bar sous le toit design, hired her.
From 1927 to 1937 she worked in the atelier, later calling that experience “a privilege.” Her charge and focus was on l’équipement intérieur de l’habitation (“the equipment of a modern dwelling”) or furniture designed by the atelier, including the fabrication of the prototypes and their final production.
In 1928 she designed three chairs, following Corbusier’s principles that the chair was a “machine for sitting,” and that each of the three would accommodate different positions for different tasks. At Corbusier’s request a chair was made for conversation: the B301 sling back chair; another for relaxation, the LC2 Grand Confort chair; and the last for sleeping, the B306 chaise longue. The chairs had tubular steel frames, painted in the prototype models; in production the steel tubes were nickel- or chromium-plated.
Her presence in Le Corbusier’s studio is visible in all the furnishings, designed with him and with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret: and so Charlotte Perriand became a cornerstone in the reformation project promoted by the architect, adding a distinctly human warmth to the often cold rationalism of Le Corbusier. In her creations she manages to animate the fundamental substance of daily life with new aesthetic values: in particular her talent and intuition in the discovery and use of new materials manifest themselves to their full extent.
The war and the Far East
Perriand abandoned her partnership with Le Corbuisier in 1937, seeking to strike out on her own. But the friendship and professional relationship forged with him, as well as the methodological principles and teamwork approach, would remain central to her practice. The beginning of the war found her researching the design of temporary, prefabricated housing with Jean Prouvé and Pierre Blanchon.
In 1940, she received an invitation from the Japanese ministry of commerce and industry, to advise on the future of Japanese industrial art production. The experience of Japan was clearly important, and seems to have reinforced her interest in the potential of artisanal processes and materials for new uses. During her long stay in the Far East (‘40-‘46), she revealed her artistic talent to the full, through a reinterpretation of the reality of life echoing both tradition and modernity. By way of example, worthy of mention are the furnishings produced using traditional bamboo processing techniques, capable of enhancing the new forms already experimented using steel-tubing. The famous chaise longue, for instance, was reinterpreted in bamboo.
In her postwar practice, Perriand worked with a wide variety of peers, including Le Corbusier, with whom she designed the prototype kitchen for the first of the famous unités d’habitation. She went on to design prefabricated kitchen and bathroom units, becoming associated with Formes Utiles – an organisation committed to encouraging good design in mass-produced everyday objects for the domestic environment. She designed offices for Air France in London and Tokyo, and studio apartments and fittings for the sports/hotel complex at Arcs en Savoie.
Women and furniture designer
After World War I, women had gained more opportunities than before, but they were still barred from many professions. For example, women were welcome at the Bauhaus, but they were not allowed to study furniture making or architecture, and nearly all were shunted to the weaving workshop. Within this context, along came the 24-year-old art school-grad Charlotte Perriand, bored by the traditional Beaux-Arts designs around her, hoping to design furniture using new industrial materials.
Perriand successfully escaped the straitjacket of those areas of design traditionally designated as female. At a time when women were expected to stay home and “embroider cushions,” Perriand bent tubular steel and traveled the world in search of a modern aesthetic. Although too often obscured by Le Corbusier’s fame, Perriand designed some of modern furniture’s worthiest icons.
Charlotte Perriand’s full membership of that avant-garde cultural movement which, from the first decades of the twentieth century, brought about a profound change in aesthetic values and gave birth to a truly modern sensitivity towards everyday life. In this context, her specific contribution focuses on interior composition, conceived as creating a new way of living, is still today at the heart of contemporary lifestyle.