Even at the present time, the work of French modernist designer Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) is not well known in the United States, except to a small group of architectural historians familiar with the personnel of Le Corbusier’s studio. She joined the atelier of Le Corbusier and his partner/cousin Pierre Jeanneret in 1927 and helped design a trio of iconic chairs firmly associated in the public mind with the famous architect. But this was only one phase of a long career of independent work punctuated with various artistic collaborations that spanned the entire Twentieth Century.
Now, editor Mary McLeod, professor of architecture at Columbia University, has assembled a comprehensive series of essays in the volume Charlotte Perriand: An Art of Living (Abrams 2003), which examine the progression of the designer’s architectural and decorative style over her intensely productive 96-year lifespan. In a fortuitous coincidence, the Princeton University Art Museum is offering a small exhibition, “Useful Forms: Furniture by Charlotte Perriand,” displaying six distinctive pieces of the designer’s furniture from the 1940s and 1950s through July 11.
“I first met Charlotte Perriand in 1979 when I was teaching in Paris,” says McLeod. “The woman with whom I was teaching, Waltraude Woods, had actually worked with her in the past. At my colleague’s invitation, Perriand spent two long mornings talking to the Columbia students and she was absolutely fabulous.”
Perriand did not want a catalog for the modest show but agreed that interested parties could participate in a symposium and do a book afterward. The conference on the designer was conducted in January 1998, and the book was finally published five years later. McLeod notes, “The major essays are all by speakers at the symposium, but they reworked their talks significantly. My opening essay is new, and we added all the material at the back – the recollections and translations of Charlotte’s writing.”
The illustrated essays are dense reading and do not follow a strict chronological progression, but approach Perriand’s interior design solutions from different angles, depending on the essayist’s interests. Yasushi Zenno focuses on “Fortuitous Encounters: Charlotte Perriand in Japan, 1940-41” while Swiss architect Arthur Ruegg explores “Transforming the Bathroom: Perriand and Le Corbusier, 1927-1957.” McLeod herself contributes a crucial chapter on “New Designs for Living: Domestic Equipment of Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier, and Pierre Jeanneret, 1928-29.”
Perriand was 24 years old when she joined the Le Corbusier office in 1927. After initially rejecting her approach, the architect saw her “Bar in the Attic” entry in the Paris Salon d’Automne of that year. Much use was made of shining nickel-plated steel on the curving bar and wainscoting, and the design already exhibited a clean, practical efficiency that characterized Perriand’s work throughout her lifetime.
The three famous chairs mentioned above that were created in the Corbusier/Jeanneret/Perriand collaboration also made use of modern metal for their frames. Tubular steel supported leather or canvas seats to form a chair with swinging back for the stark “siege a dossier basculant,” while in contrast the overstuffed cube-style “fauteuil grand comfort” sported large leather cushions housed in a tubular steel frame. Both of the well-known designs are rather square in shape. The “chaise longue” utilized a free modern tubular form that drew its roots from Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century designs to address relaxation in a different light. The sitter could fully recline in numerous different positions. A 1929 photograph taken by Jeanneret shows Perriand lying back, seemingly asleep, on the chaise. Period photographs in the book from this era show the designer as a pretty, smiling young woman who seems to enjoy the charms of life.
McLeod says, “I wanted people to know more about her. I genuinely felt she was important for Twentieth Century design, especially French design. Her life was a lot more interesting and complex than people recognized – with her work in Japan, Brazil and time spent in Vietnam. She was a real pioneer in many ways. Also, because of my own feminist concerns of opening up architectural history, I thought her work addressed issues that too often got neglected.”
One problematic issue for scholars is the intertwined complexity of Perriand’s collaborations with other architects and designers from the time she joined Le Corbusier and his colleagues right through later involvements, such as the academic installations she did with Ateliers Jean Prouve. The book firmly attempts to sort out just who did what.
By the end of the 1930s, Perriand had left Le Corbusier’s studio and entered an “all wood” period that lasted until the end of the 1940s. Her appreciation of natural materials was also increased by frequent trips to the Alps, where she found renewal and inspiration. In 1940, immediately after the Nazis captured Paris, the designer left France for Japan, answering an invitation from the government there to serve as a consultant in industrial design. She already had two architect friends in the country, Kunio Maekawa and Junzo Sakakura, who had worked with Le Corbusier during her years at the atelier.
Perriand studied Japanese traditional culture, art forms and materials. In 1941, her work in the Asian country was exhibited at the exclusive Takashimaya department store in Tokyo. The show’s theme was “Sentaku, Dento, Sozo” (Selection, Tradition, Creation), and her friend Sakakura was responsible for the installation. One of the most interesting pieces was a wooden folding chaise longue, illustrated in the exhibition catalog with various cushions, including one of a woven straw fabric imitating the material of a peasant’s rain-repellent cloak.
The folding chaise is one of six later pieces of Perriand furniture currently on display in the Princeton exhibition. The guest curator is Jennifer King, a PhD candidate in art and archaeology, who also wrote the essay for a brochure published in conjunction with the show. King also discovered Perriand’s work on a trip to France: “I had been on vacation in Paris and had gone to the Centre Pompidou as a tourist to look at the art. They have the best collection of Perriand furniture. I remember thinking, these are great pieces of furniture, and I regretted that more people didn’t know her work.” One of King’s teachers was Esther da Costa Meyer, who put her in touch with McLeod.
Two of the other pieces at Princeton are drawn from the many installations Perriand designed for commercial and educational settings: a 1952 shelving unit for storage, which doubled as a room divider in the Maison du Mexique dormitory at Cite Universitaire, and a library table with built-in light fixture made for the Maison de l’Etudiant, 1950-52.
“I hope that people will become acquainted with Charlotte Perriand and her work,” says King. “She had such a long career – she was active from the mid-1920s until her death in 1999 – but she is not at all a household name. She was a really wonderful designer, and there are very few opportunities to see her furniture, since most of the pieces in the United States are owned privately, with the exception of the works from the Le Corbusier studio period. I have a fantasy that I might find a Charlotte Perriand piece down the street from me on antiques row – but I’m not holding my breath.”
“Dealers got savvy in the eighties and started raiding things,” she continues. “Maison du Bresil – she designed the interior – that actually just got emptied a couple of years ago, and the dealers were all ready to pounce. After I finished the book, I went to Brazil and met with Maria Elisa Costa, who worked with Perriand. We were hoping to find some of the furniture she did for her own apartment. Costa thought it had totally disappeared, and I was just delighted to discover that one of the French dealers went to Brazil and managed to find a few pieces. One of them was about to be thrown out. Now they charge outrageous prices for them.”
A wonderful conclusion to the Perriand volume is a collection of translations from the designer’s own writings. In 1950, under the title “Ambiance,” she wrote: “The ambiance of our dwellings should foster calm, relaxation, harmony. There is a communion between our beings and our environments, and therefore the latter has an impact on us over time. And just as we change during different phases of our lives, our environments are never in a single permanent state but are always undergoing transformation.”
Charlotte Perriand: An Art of Living, edited by Mary McLeod and published by Abrams, is available now through booksellers for $65, ISBN 0-8109-4503-7. “Useful Forms: Furniture by Charlotte Perriand” will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through July 11.
For information, 609-258-3788 or www.princetonartmuseum.org.