Charlotte Perriand (1903–1999) was a French architect and designer, and one of the most acclaimed figures to have emerged from the studio environment around Le Corbusier. Working across buildings, interiors and furniture — perhaps most notably chairs — Perriand’s practice evolved radically over her lifetime, shaped by her political views, the turbulence of the mid-20th century and the travels which were forced upon her by those events.
There was a profoundly human element to Perriand’s work — she believed good design should be affordable and functional, and blurred the lines between the mechanical world of the indoor and the organic world of the outdoor (she would beachcomb the shores of Normandy for inspiration, photographing sea-smoothed lumps of driftwood and rock).
A keen exponent of outdoor calisthenics, her ‘House for a Young Man’, built for the Brussels International Exposition of 1935, featured pull-up bars and other exercise equipment in one half of the living space, and the study area on the other side of a partition. Borders, barriers and conventions were broken down throughout her work — ideologically, physically and aesthetically.
1. Better design = better living
Perriand’s life and work was governed by the idea that better design should be an intrinsic part of the human experience and could be used to create a better society. In her essay L’Art de Vivre (1981) she wrote, ‘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’.
2. She studied with Henri Rapin and Maurice Dufrêne
Perriand was born into a design environment in Paris — her father was a tailor and her mother a seamstress. Marked out as an uncommonly talented artist at school, she was encouraged to enroll in the Ecole de L’Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs where she studied furniture design from 1920-1925 (during this time she reportedly attended a party dressed as a tube of paint, perhaps suggesting that she wasn’t entirely destined for a life of sober minimalism).
While studying, she came under the wing of notable teachers, including Art Deco illustrator Henri Rapin, and Maurice Dufrêne of La Maitrise furniture workshop. By the age of 22 she had work included in the Exposition Internationale and was exhibiting her wall hangings in the upmarket Galeries Lafayette store in Paris.
3. Her breakthrough came with Le Bar sous le toit
Perriand’s breakthrough piece was Le bar sous le toit (‘The bar beneath the roof’), which she created in 1927 for Salon d’Automne. A reaction to what she saw as the overly fussy, decorative and predominantly wooden designs of her peers, this was a recreation of the aluminium, chrome and glass room that she had originally built on the top floor of her own apartment.
With leather cushions and nickel-plated surfaces, it was a futuristic realisation of the machine aesthetic, more informed by car showrooms of the Champs Elysées than Paris’s more traditional decorative arts.
4. Perriand’s first encounter with Le Corbusier was not particularly encouraging
Perriand’s first encounter with Le Corbusier’s writings had been a seismic moment. ‘They demolished… everything I had learned,’ she would later say, his influence completely breaking any connection to the Art Deco influences of her earlier education.
However, when she applied to work at the Le Corbusier studio in October 1927 she received the dismissive assertion that ‘we don’t embroider cushions here’. Thankfully her work was still on display at Salon d’Automne and having seen it in person, Le Corbusier realised his mistake and Perriand was hired.
5. Her early chairs are a visual shorthand for elegant minimalism
Perriand began to work at the studio alongside Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbusier’s cousin (who would eventually become her lover). This was a spartan, financially precarious environment where she was forced to wrap her legs in newspaper to stave off the cold while she worked. But it also exposed her to a talented, international team of creatives, including two Japanese architects, Kunio Maekawa and Junzo Sakakura, and the Swiss architect Alfred Roth.
Perriand created two armchairs (the B301 for conversation, the LC2 Grand Confort for relaxation), her small revolving ‘armchair’ the Siège Pivotant, and the B306 chaise longue (above).
The latter — a hyper-modern, lightweight, de-feminised version of the 18th-century ‘fainting couch’ — was created from bicycle tubes and covered in pony skin, and remains a visual shorthand for a certain kind of elegant minimalism.
6. As her politics shifted left, she focused on utility over theory
Perriand would work with Corbusier at Rue de Sèvres until 1937, but as extremism gripped much of Europe, her politics and creative focus became more socially conscious. She worked on major projects including the Cité du Réfuge for the French Salvation Army and the Pavillon Suisse at the Cité Universitaire, while developing an interest in creating cheaper lines of mass-produced furniture.
She detailed the need for contemporary architecture and design to connect with social issues, with a focus on utility over theory. Working with cheaper materials, prefabricated elements and traditional techniques on everything from bathroom fittings to an emergency shelter in the French Alps, she maintained ‘one can work honestly in any material’.
7. She left France for Japan, and became exiled in Indochina
With the outbreak of war, Perriand collaborated with the ‘constructeur’ Jean Prouvé, designing military barracks and prefabricated, temporary housing. Their partnership was put on hold in 1940 when she accepted an invitation from the Japanese ministry of commerce and industry to advise on developing its furniture production.
Leaving Marseilles on one of the final ships to depart before the arrival of the Nazis, she made safe passage to Tokyo, but the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor nixed her plans to return to France via America, and she was exiled in Indochina (now Vietnam).
While there she married her second husband, Jacques Martin, had a daughter (Pernette, who went on to work alongside her mother for more than 25 years) and lived through attacks by the Americans, the anti-imperialist Viet Minh and the Japanese.
8. Perriand’s experiences in the Far East had an enduring influence on her work
Perriand’s geographical relocation had a profound impact on her aesthetically. Fascinated with Japanese design, materials and techniques, she was strongly influenced by Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea and the ideas of simplicity contained therein. She would reference the book throughout the rest of her career, and at the age of 90 designed a Japanese teahouse for the UNESCO garden in Paris.
Back in France after the war ended, she also began to experiment with new, hybrid, low-cost materials such as Formica and plywood.
9. Perriand insisted her public creations were built quickly, efficiently and durably
Commercially successful, Perriand worked on a series of notable public-facing buildings, all marked by a requirement that they could be built quickly, efficiently and durably. These included the League of Nations building in Geneva, and the Air France offices in London, Paris and Tokyo, as well as the ski resort in Meribel.
Most notably, between 1968 and 1979 she designed three of ‘Les Arcs’, the apartment buildings that make up the ski resort at Savoie in the Tarentaise Valley of France. Designed for guests who spend most of their time out on the slopes, the minimalist rooms had oversized windows and standardised bathrooms and kitchens for ease of installation.
Viewed from outside, the stepped buildings appear to be slumping into the mountainside and would be hidden by snowfall — they form the dramatic location for Ruben Östlund’s 2014 drama, Force Majeure.
Perriand’s integration of design with nature was also seen in her early commission (1950-51) of wood furniture for the private Pluet Boathouse residence on the Isle of Brehat, as well as in the furnishing she produced for the Maison du Brésil at the Cité Universitaire in Paris (1957-59).
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10. Perriand’s stock is rising
A recent exhibition in Paris drew praise for its lavish reconstruction of Perriand’s work and respectful attention to detail. It was the first design exhibition in which a designer’s work was exhibited alongside artists such as Picasso, Léger and Calder. Echoes of the art of Léger and Calder, who were both close personal friends, can be detected in the shapes of Perriand’s furniture.
According to Christie’s specialist Flavien Gaillard, Charlotte Perriand’s designs are sought after by collectors because of ‘their simplicity and zen-like quality’, which works perfectly within contemporary architecture. Added to that, he reminds us that Perriand has ‘a unique trajectory’ in design: ‘No other woman has collaborated with all the masters of the period — Prouvé, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret’.