Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Charlotte Perriand


Le Corbusier was accused of being a misogynist by researcher Flora Samuel. She says that he saw women as sexual beings first and foremost and, in his early career, he embraced an essentially "masculine" approach to the built environment. This approach helped to marginalize women from the modernist project. Others claim that "he venerated woman as the complement of man." He saw women , especially American women, whom he regarded as 'strong and free-spoken', as modern beings embracing a new body language and therefore worthy of enormous respect. Corbusier himself once said, "Women are important agents in the march for progress."

Corbu took a chance on one woman, Charlotte Perriand, and it would result in one of the great risks of his life - with the greatest of rewards. When the 24-year-old Charlotte Perriand strode into LeCorbusier's studio at 35 rue de Sevres, Paris in 1927, and asked him to hire her as a furniture designer, his response was terse.

Perriand remembers, "Clutching a portfolio of drawings, I found myself face-to-face one October afternoon in 1927 with Le Corbusier's horn-rimmed spectacles. The austere office was somewhat intimidating, and his greeting rather frosty. "What do you want?" he asked, his eyes hooded by the glasses. "To work with you." He glanced quickly through my drawings. "We don't embroider cushions here," he replied, and showed me the door.

Perriand was born in 1903, and her life from there on out was to be divided between her childhood in Paris where her father worked as a tailor and her mother as a haute couture seamstress, and her grandparents' home in the mountainous rural region of Savoie. In 1920, she enrolld as a student at the Ecole de l'Union des Arts Decoratifs and studied there for five years.

Her childhood exposed her to the limitations of female professionals in the workforce. Her mother was summoned to Paris when she was fifteen. She went on a hunger strike and temporarily returned to Moulery. It was at this point that she swore to gain her independence. She went back to Paris, having won the promise from her parents that she could work. Opting for the couturier trade, she was taken on for a short time by the tailors’ assistants, but was too pretty and had to move from one job to the next, which earned her the tag of “unstable” by her mother.

Frustrated by the craft-based approach and Beaux-Arts style championed by the school, Perriand searched for inspiration in the machine aesthetic of the motor cars and bicycles she saw on the Paris streets. After graduation, she got married to the first of her eventual two husbands. She remembers, “I decided to get married, out of defiance perhaps. He was called Percy. “An Englishman? Why an Englishman? My father asked chauvinistically. He couldn’t understand. “No” was his answer, and every month for a whole year he continued to say, “No.” My mother remained neutral, but nonetheless tried to make me see that I wasn’t cut out for marriage. I got divorced a few years later, despite being forbidden to do so by the religious authorities. Yet, at the time marriage was the only way for the chrysalis I was to turn into a butterfly, and a butterfly is a creature that takes flight."

She was determined to avoid working for one of the artisanal furniture manufacturers on Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but despairing of finding a more empathetic way of earning a living in furniture design, Perriand considered studying agriculture, until a friend suggested that she read two books by Le Corbusier, 1923’s Vers une Architecture and 1925’s L’Art Decoratif d’Aujourd’hui.


Before Perriand’s arrival, Le Corbusier had furnished his exhibition sets and buildings with carefully selected ready-made furniture. He had, however, set forth specific rules for what he expected from furniture in his 1925 book. There were three types: besoins-types or type-needs; muebles-types or type-furniture; and objets-membres humains or human-limb objects. He defined the latter as “Extensions of our limbs and adapted to human functions that are. Type-needs, type-functions, therefore type-objects and type-furniture. The human-limb objects is a docile servant. A good servant is discreet and self-effacing in order to leave his master free. Certainly, works of art are tools, beautiful tools. And long live the good taste manifested by choice, subtlety, proportion and harmony."

Perriand proceeded to put Le Corbusier’s principles into practice by developing three chairs with chromium-plated tubular steel bases for two of his 1928 projects: Maison La Roche, a house he was designing in Paris, and a pavilion for his US clients Henry and Barbara Church in the garden of their home outside the city. At Le Corbusier’s request, one chair was designed “for conversation”, this was the B301 sling back chair; another “for relaxation”, the square-shaped and chunkily upholstered LC2 Grand Confort; and a third for sleeping, the elegant B306 chaise longue recliner inspired by the sensual curves of 18th century daybeds. Perriand posed for the publicity shots of the chaise longue with crossed legs, a daringly short (for the era) skirt and a necklace of industrial ball bearings. She went on to experiment with rustic materials, such as wood and cane in the mid-1930s. This was inspired by the vernacular furniture of Savoie. By then, such materials seemed as outlandish and as radical as had her early preference for glass and metal, but Perriand was convinced that they would enable her to realize the goal of developing affordable, functional and appealing mass-manufactured furniture for the masses.

In 1937, Perriand left Le Corbusier’s studio to collaborate with Fernand Leger on a stand at the 1937 Paris Exhibition and then to work on a ski resort in Savoit. When World War II began, she returned to Paris to design prefabricated aluminum buildings with Pierre Jeanneret and Jean Prouve. Like so many other bold designers in the past, Perriand refused to shy away from the topic of war and the political climate of the times. She created a photomontage showing “poverty-stricken Paris” at the Salon des Arts Menagers in 1936. She writes in her journal, “September 1, 1939—war. What war? The Phony War. As Jean Giraudoux wrote in La Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu in 1935, 'There’ll be no Trojan War.' The front page of Le Petit Dauphine read: 'France faces its destiny wearing hope on her lapel.'”

The German-Soviet pact was signed on August 23, 1939. She writes, “What a betrayal. It didn’t seem possible, just three years after the Franco—Soviet pact on mutual assistance. As soon as I got back to Paris, I called Jean Nicolas. He cut me short: “Don’t worry. Just be the best in your profession.” Not what I was expecting, but I left it at that.”

She continued her work in Paris until, in 1940, a friend from the rue de Sevres studio arranged for her to travel to Japan as an official advisor on industrial design to the Ministry for Trade and Industry. “On February 8, 1940, I received a radiogram from Japan: “Inviting you to work with the Trade Ministry as design consultant in decorative art. Salary of 100,000 francs a year, plus fees and travel expenses. Letter with details to follow.” Saka had vowed to show me his country, but I wasn’t sure this was a good time. There was a war on. The Third Reich and the Soviety Union had already invaded Poland. The Soviet Union had attacked Finland. I hesitated. George Monnet (who had been appointed minister of the blockade) and Germaine thought we were headed for fascism and that I should leave. Fernand Leger’s advice was even more categorical: “Take up the offer. There won’t be another.” In 1940, Japan was worlds away, hardly real, but I was adventurous and loved the unexpected.”

Her invitation came from the Ministry of Trade and Industry, now known as the MITI, which had two departments that directly concerned her work: the foreign trade department and the technical department. The technical department was directly linked to the Kogei-Shidosho (government institute for research in industrial art), the Kyoto porcelain laboratory with its Seto porcelain laboratory (well known for Setomono porcelain), and the Kyoto dye laboratory. The Kogei-Shidosho was founded in 1928 to produce industrial art: furnishings and everyday objects in wood, bamboo, metal, and lacquer that combined contemporary technology and traditional Japanese techniques. The institutes primary concern was developing items for export, and it gave artisans practice advice based on its research on technique and design.

She reflects, “I was convinced that it was a good thing the Japanese’s minds weren’t cluttered with past Western styles, modern-day gadgets, and many different furnishing, all of which inhibit creativity in France. The Japanese were untarnished and could spontaneously create new forms. They had to develop a critical approach to the Western world, not follow it blindly. They had to create in the modern style according to their ethic. When talking to them about their everyday lives, I suggested that they should perhaps stop carrying their babies and older children around so much on their backs, attached by wide cloth strips. It seemed to me that the froglike position of their legs against their mother’s back could be harmful. Mikami had barely finished translating when a tall fellow stood up, so upset that his face was red: “Everyone in my family carried me on their back. I was never left alone. I shared in all their activities and distractions, my mother’s, my grandfather’s, lives, as they took me out into the cool evening air, on my big sister’s back as she ran and played with other kids. I was happy. In fact, I wish I were still on their back.” He had made his point, and I had to concede.” The woman who was so well-known for the forms and movements of bodies and how to accommodate them with her furniture found herself being challenged and open to new ideas.

She set about advising the government on how to raise standards of design in Japanese industry in order to develop products for export to the West. When Japan joined the war as a German ally, she tried to return to France but, because of the naval blockade, found herself trapped in Vietnam from 1942 until 1946. During her enforced Vietnamese exile, Perriand studied local techniques of woodwork and weaving. She also married her second husband, Jacques Martin, and gave birth to their daughter, Pernette.

Back in France, Perriand revived her career. Her first project was a ski resort and in 1947 she worked with Fernand Leger on a hospital and then with Le Corbusier on his Unité d’Habitation apartment building in Marseilles. Perriand’s experiences in Japan and Vietnam continued to influence her work, which combined many of the functional elements of Japanese interior, such as sliding screen to redefine particular spaces, with the Indochinese finesse in working with natural materials, such as wood and bamboo. These themes recurred for the rest of her career in projects such as her Méribel Ski resort and the League of Nations building in Geneva.

Perriand was once interviewed by HT. The interviewer asked, “In this synthesis of arts, how do you define your role? Do you consider yourself an architect or a designer?” Charlotte replied, “I’m not an architect. In 1938, after spending ten years with Corbu, I could have said I was an “architect.” But when I came back from Japan in 1946, I would have had to pass before l’Ordre des Architectes – which is very academic – and I didn’t want to do that. I’m for teamwork. I’m very interested in the life of houses. Everything is created from within, if you will – needs, gestures, a harmony, a euphoric arrangement, if possible, in relation to an environment. In that respect, I side with architecture, I project myself outside, and I admit that there is a to and fro between the environment and the horizon. After all we are a part of the universe. So perhaps, as Confucius said, I think, man is in the universe. That is, there are no barriers.”

In one of her last interviews, Perriand stated, “The most important thing to realize is that what drives the modern movement is a spirit of enquiry, it’s a process of analysis and not a style. We worked with ideals.”

Perriand passed away in Paris in 1999.







Works Cited

“Japanese Living Room: Architect, Charlotte Perriand.” Architectural Review 101, no. 606 (June 1947), 213-14.

McLeod, Mary. “Charlotte Perriand: Her First Decade as a Designer.” AA Files, no. 15 (summer 1987), 4-13. Excerpt in Architectural Review 181, no. 1079 (Jan. 1987) 43-46.

McLeod, Mary (editor). Charlotte Perriand: An Art of Living. Harry N. Abrams/The Architectural League of New York, New York: 2003.

Perriand, Charlotte. Charlotte Perriand: A Life of Creation. Monacelli Press, New York: 2003.

Renato De Fusco. Le Corbusier: Designer Furniture, 1929. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s, 1977.

Samuel, Flora. Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist. Wiley-Academy, 2004.

Teicher, Hendel. “Collective affinity (architect Charlotte Perriand)”. Interview. Artforum International 37.10 (Summer 1999): p126(4).

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