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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.