The art of living: 10 things to know about Charlotte Perriand
A guide to the French designer who worked with Le Corbusier and counted Fernand Léger and Alexander Calder among her friends. lllustrated with works offered at Christie’s
Charlotte Perriand (1903–1999) was a French architect and designer, and one of the most acclaimed figures to have emerged from the circle of 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 forced upon her by that upheaval.
There was a profoundly human element to Perriand’s work. She believed that good design should be affordable and functional, and she blurred the lines between the mechanical indoor world and the organic outdoor one (she would go beachcombing on the shores of Normandy for inspiration, photographing sea-smoothed lumps of driftwood and rock).
She was a keen exponent of outdoor calisthenics, and her ‘House for a Young Man’, built for the Brussels International Exposition of 1935, had pull-up bars and other exercise equipment in one half of the living space, with a 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 means better living
Perriand’s work was governed by the idea that design should be an intrinsic part of the human experience and can be used to create a better society. In her 1981 essay L’Art de Vivre, 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 Décoratifs, where she studied furniture design from 1920 to 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 Maîtrise 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 department 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 the 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 an 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, informed more by the car showrooms of the Champs Elysées than by Paris’s more traditional decorative arts.
4. Perriand’s first encounter with Le Corbusier was not particularly encouraging
When Perriand first discovered Le Corbusier’s writings, it was a seismic moment, breaking any connection with the Art Deco influences of her earlier education. ‘They demolished… everything I had learned,’ she would later say.
However, when she applied to work at the Le Corbusier studio in October 1927, she received the dismissive response: ‘We don’t embroider cushions here.’ Thankfully, her work was still on display at the Salon d’Automne and, having seen it in person, Le Corbusier realised his mistake. 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). It was a spartan, financially precarious environment, and she had to wrap her legs in newspaper to stave off the cold while she worked. But it also exposed her to an international team of talented 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), a small revolving chair (the Siège Pivotant), and the B306 chaise longue.
The chaise longue — 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 to the left, she focused on utility over theory
Perriand would work with Le 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 Swiss Pavilion at the Cité Universitaire, while developing an interest in creating cheaper lines of mass-produced furniture.
She spoke of the need for contemporary architecture and design to address 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 insisted that ‘one can work honestly in any material’.
7. She left France for Japan, and became exiled in Indochina
With the outbreak of war, Perriand worked 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 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 aesthetic impact on her. Fascinated with Japanese design, materials and techniques, she was strongly influenced by Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea and its ideas of simplicity. 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 that her public creations be 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 Méribel ski resort.
Most notably, between 1968 and the late 1980s she oversaw the design of three of the four villages that make up ‘Les Arcs’, the ski resort in the Tarentaise Valley of Savoie, France.
Designed for guests who would spend most of their time out on the slopes, the resort’s apartment buildings had minimalist rooms with oversized windows and standardised bathrooms and kitchens for ease of installation. Items of furniture, whether integrated or mobile, often had several uses.
The small hexagonal and square tables, for instance, could be transformed into a large dining table, while the Cascade bench (above) could be used as a sideboard. The modular storage units could be combined if required. Perriand also opened up the kitchens and rounded off angles such as those of the interior doors.
Viewed from outside, the stepped buildings appear to be slumping into the mountainside and are hidden by snowfall. They are the dramatic location for Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure.
Perriand’s integration of design with nature can also be seen in her early commission (from 1950-51) to design wooden furniture for the Pluet Boathouse, a private residence on the Ile-de-Bréhat off the coast of Brittany, as well as in the furnishings she produced for the Brazil Pavilion at the Cité Universitaire in Paris (1957-59).
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10. Perriand’s stock is rising
A 2019 exhibition in Paris drew praise for its lavish reconstruction of Perriand’s work and its respectful attention to detail. It was the first exhibition in which a designer’s work was shown alongside that of artists of the same period. Echoes of the art of Fernand Léger and Alexander Calder, who were both personal friends of Perriand, can be detected in the shapes of her furniture.
According to Flavien Gaillard, Christie’s head of Design, Europe, Perriand’s designs are sought after by collectors because of ‘their simplicity and Zen-like quality’, characteristics that work perfectly within contemporary architecture. Added to that, he notes 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.’