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Mad About . . .

Charlotte Perriand: One of the Greatest Designers You haven’t heard of

8th September 2021
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Last weekend I rushed over to The Design Museum in West London to catch the last day of the Charlotte Perriand exhibition. This French designer, whose life literally spanned the 20th century (1903-1999) is one of my design heroes and yet her name is not famous like Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé with whom she worked. Her furniture is not in production and, indeed one of the few pieces that is often attributed to her (with a corresponding price tag) was probably just bought in bulk, by her, from an Italian furniture company for Les Arcs, the ski resort she designed in the 1960s.

Charlotte Perriand, A Modern Life taken from the exhibition at the Design Museum London 2021

A modular storage unit and room divider by Charlotte Perriand, taken from the exhibition at the Design Museum London 2021 A Modern Life

The exhibition brought together her work and ideas and, it is hoped, will help to bring this incredible woman’s work to more prominence. Of course, it is partly because she was a woman – a furniture designer – in a (man’s) architect’s world. But it is true too that she was also a real team player, happy to collaborate with the men around her who then pushed their own names to the top of the credits. It is also true that while she designed for mass production many of her pieces were produced in small “luxury” runs so never achieved the ubiquity or fame of many other pieces created at the same time.

Charlotte Perriand, A Modern Life taken from the exhibition at the Design Museum London 2021

A stacking table designed by Charlotte Perriand for Air France, taken from the exhibition Charlotte Perriand, A Modern Life at the Design Museum London 2021

That said, you will recognise some of her furniture and, I am certain, her ideas for small space living will resonate even more today.

I was particularly interested in her free-form dining table and boomerang desk – she returned to this shape when she designed a bench for customers to sit on while waiting to be seen in the London Air France office. The desk, created in 1938 for the editor of Ce Soir newspaper, meant that, from his swivel chair, he could turn to face each member of staff thus removing any sense of hierarchy. We will probably never know if this woman, who was initially dismissed by Le Corbusier when she applied to work at his studio with the words “we don’t embroider cushions here” was making a statement about the hierarchy she herself faced all the time.

Charlotte Perriand, A Modern Life taken from the exhibition at the Design Museum London 2021

Bar sous le toit: Charlotte Perriand, A Modern Life taken from the exhibition at the Design Museum London 2021

She was undeterred by his rebuff and set about transforming her own tiny apartment in Paris into a light-filled open plane space with sleek metal furniture which she presented at Le Salon d’Automne in 1927 at which point Le Corbusier changed his mind and invited her to work with him on a series of furniture designs or, as he called in, interior equipment. She was to stay for 10 years working with him and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and she had a hand in many of the familiar, and famous, chairs that are now mostly attributed to the former.

Perriand's ball bearing necklace taken from the exhibition A Modern Life at the Design Museum London 2021

Perriand’s ball bearing necklace taken from the exhibition A Modern Life at the Design Museum London 2021

Many pictures of Perriand at the time show her wearing a necklace made of steel ball bearings, used in industrial machinery. She had one in chrome and a second gold-plated. It was not just a sign of her dedication to modern efficiency in design but also a way of presenting herself as a modern woman.

charlotte perriand, taken from the exhibition A Modern Life at the Design Museum London 2021

charlotte perriand, taken from the exhibition A Modern Life at the Design Museum London 2021

In 1929, Perriand, Corbusier and Jeanneret presented at Le Salon ‘Automne again – another open plan living space furnished with the tubular steel furniture they were becoming known for. The space, while tiny, appears modern and fresh to 21 century eyes with the spaces divided by metal and glass storage units.

Perriand would go on to have many more clever ideas for small space living including furniture that could be reconfigured to suit the user, creating spaces that could move between playroom, living room and kitchen, while at night sliding partitions created bedrooms. This idea was born out of the housing crisis of the late 1920s when the official allowance calculated to allow a person to live comfortably was defined as 7.5m2. Perriand insisted it be raised to 14m2 and designed the furniture accordingly. In 1935 Le Corbusier published their findings but left her name out.

Charlotte Perriand, A Modern Life taken from the exhibition at the Design Museum London 2021

Charlotte Perriand, A Modern Life taken from the exhibition at the Design Museum London 2021

However, he had recognised her contribution to the atelier some years earlier when he separated the interior design work from the rest and charged a five per cent fee for it (it’s possible she received this fee). He wrote to a client: “Our work includes both buildings and their furnishings. The truth is that the interior demands infinitely more care than the exterior; it requires more architectural quality and a considerable amount of time”.

In 1949 they worked together on his most famous housing project the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. Perriand’s modular kitchen, with an integrated waste disposal unit, was modern for the time but would still work today. Why, you wonder when you see the model, don’t all kitchens have sliding doors to save space?

Perriand's ball bearing necklace taken from the exhibition A Modern Life at the Design Museum London 2021

small space kitchen taken from the exhibition Charlotte Perriand A Modern Life at the Design Museum London 2021

She then went on to design a brilliant wardrobe for Le Courbusier’s housing project for Brazilan students in Paris. This was the last time they worked together but the wooden framed unit with its plastic drawers and metal doors that can double up as a room divider is an extraordinarily clever piece of furniture that would work in so many small spaces today.

Perriand would use another version of this in a dormitory she worked on for Mexican students on the outskirts of Paris saying: “What is the most important element of a domestic interior? We can answer without hesittation: storage. Without well-planned storage, empty space in the home becomes impossible.”

Charlotte Perriand, A Modern Life taken from the exhibition at the Design Museum London 2021

Housing for Mexican students in Paris by Charlotte Perriand, A Modern Life taken from the exhibition at the Design Museum London 2021

In the 1960s and 70s she worked on the ski resort of Les Arcs creating more small spaces that were brilliantly designed. Her kitchens were open-plan so that whoever was doing the cooking, usually the woman, wouldn’t be stuck away from everyone else socialising while on holiday.

The exhibition may have finished but I hope it has helped to bring Perriand’s name to the forefront of modern design. One of the photographs that struck me walking around was a photomontage from a 1950 edition of Elle magazine which presented “as a laugh and with a thousand apologies to the incumbent ministers” a fictional cabinet made entirely of women, of which Perriand was appointed to the Ministry of Reconstruction. Her mission, she told the magazine, would be to address the urgency of building housing, schools and hospitals as well as introducing fixed rents for landlords and renters’ rights for tenants.

And the last piece of the show, just before the shop, is a vase she bought in Brazil in the 1960s made from a plastic bottle that, she said, captured the essence of good design – to be resourceful, intelligent and infused with humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • M C Harriet 8th September 2021 at 7:36 pm

    Thank you for your very interesting article. I’m writing from France and need to tell you that Charlotte’s name has been known to design lovers for about ten years now. While the general public was not aware of her work before that, she was often mentioned in design magazines. To me, her work triggers joy, and all the photos featuring her, along with the ones she took, show what a great human being she was.

  • Julia Inman 8th September 2021 at 1:29 pm

    I too visited at the last moment! Great exhibition & designs and super film footage. (Brought back memories of the various Bauhaus exhibitions I visited in Germany in 2019 – 100th anniversary of Bauhaus foundation.) However, one issue jarred with me – how did CP reconcile going to Japan during WWII? How did she gain permission to travel from the German occupiers in France at that time?

    • Allison 8th September 2021 at 1:42 pm

      I’m not sure it’s necessary for her to “reconcile” it. My understanding from other reading is that she left France before the German army occupied Paris in 1940, at which point Japan was not involved in WWII. After the Pearl Harbour attack she had to move to what is now Vietnam.

      • Julia Inman 10th September 2021 at 7:53 am

        Interesting- thank you. The exhibition was not clear on this unfortunately.

  • Bonnie Foster Abel 8th September 2021 at 1:21 pm

    I like the direction you have taken in featuring design by a designer. While many of us are learning about colour, pattern, texture, the leading source names of where to find these elements, I think it is equally important to understand the concept of design and its designers. Hope you might consider featuring another designer again. The name of Charlotte Perriand was not known to me until today. I know I will not forget her name nor her design style. I think Bauhaus, Ikea, Finnish Design have all been influenced by her design creativity, as evidenced by the similarity in their design production. Charlotte was ahead of her time in her design, her achievements, and as a woman, well understood the organizational needs of small space living. Thank you for this post!

  • Elaine Fraser 8th September 2021 at 11:01 am

    Many thanks for showing the great designs of one more invisible woman.

  • Allison 8th September 2021 at 10:46 am

    Thank you so much for highlighting this, it’s a shame the exhibition has finished now. I too went on the very last day, after Rachel Chudley mentioned it on Instagram and I suddenly remembered it was on. I wonder if we crossed paths!

    What I was left with (apart from the idea to try to make my own giant free-form desk) was sense of Perriand’s tremendous resilience and spirit- in all the photographs she seems so happy and self-assured. I am feeling beaten down by sexism lately, and the everyday reminders that I am seen as less, taken less seriously. How much worse it must have been for Perriand, but she persisted. And that Elle photo made me so sad – how many opportunities to make the world a better place have we all missed by dismissing and side-lining women? By treating their leadership as a novelty and a bit of light relief? I bet that cabinet would have gotten shit done, and without wasting time on affairs and egos!

  • Lenore Taylor 8th September 2021 at 9:53 am

    I wonder if the ball bearing necklace was a statement – I am be a woman struggling to survive in a man’s world, but I have balls of steel. Cheers from Canada!

  • Bernadette Colley 8th September 2021 at 9:04 am

    What a fantastic designer, love that ball-bearing necklace too. Thanks for featuring this exhibition Kate, I’d never heard of Perriand which is crazy given she lived and worked for almost the entire 20th century, certainly long enough to have informed so much contemporary design. What a philosophy: to be resourceful, intelligent and infused with humanity. Talk about being a woman ahead of her time.

  • Susan Moreau 8th September 2021 at 8:15 am

    Quelle magnifique dame! Wonderful style and a fascinating, thought-provoking piece. I too had not heard of Charlotte Perriand. A quick internet search shows you can still buy her pieces at relatively affordable prices compared to her peers – plus ça change…..

    • Susan Moreau 8th September 2021 at 8:16 am

      (her male peers that is)

  • Sigrid Schwarck 8th September 2021 at 7:57 am

    Thank you very much for this post. I too have never heard of Charlotte Perriand. Le Courbusier is most likely not the only one who is taking other people’s inspiration as their own. It happens in fashion, music, art or any other creative profession all the time.

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