Beauty in utility was the slogan of the Ecole de l'Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, in Paris, where Charlotte Perriand began her formal design training as a 17-year-old student. By the time she completed her studies in 1925, she had fully embraced the school's motto, and as architect Roger Aujame points out, "it became the axiom of her professional life." Although she is probably best known for her collaborations with Le Corbusier and Jean Prouvé, Perriand was a singular talent—her long career spanned more than 75 years and crossed many of design's boundaries, with creations ranging from furniture and industrial objects to interiors and architecture commissions. Throughout her long life (she passed away in 1999 at the age of 96) Perriand was concerned with two entwined principles that she called "the art of dwelling" and "the art of living." Here are six ways she realized them both.
Perriand resting on the chaise longue that she designed with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in 1928
With Jean Prouvé, she designed furniture and shelving systems for dormitories and institutional buildings that were later adapted into stand-alone pieces for serial production. Above: a 1952 shelving unit for the dormitories at the Maison du Mexique, Cité Universitaire, Paris. Image via the Vitra Design Museum
1. She turned her attic apartment into a bar
Perriand made a name for herself in 1927 with her installation "Bar in the Attic," which she designed first for her rented apartment on Place Saint-Sulpice, and then exhibited later that year as part of the Salon d'Automne. Her choice of streamlined materials—shiny chromed-steel for the stools, tables and countertop—and the inclusion of a built-in gramophone were technologically advanced for the era and considered the height of chic. One critic wrote in praise of her design, "One cannot imagine anything fresher or more youthful." More importantly, "Bar in the Attic" gave Perriand a chance to experiment with tubular steel, which would play an important role in her future creations.
Perriand was greeted with great acclaim in 1927 for her first project—a chic bar and seating area that she installed in her own apartment and later exhibited at the Salon d'Automne in Paris.
2. She made Le Corbusier eat his words
When Perriand knocked on Le Corbusier's door in 1927 to ask for a job, he famously turned her away with the withering put-down, "We don't embroider cushions here." Undeterred, she invited him to view her "Bar in the Attic" exhibition, where he became convinced of her talent. Not only did he offer her a job on the spot, he immediately put her in charge of furniture and interior fittings, which they collaborated on for ten prolific years. In an interview with The Architectural Review, she recalled Le Corbusier's abrupt change of heart:
I think the reason Le Corbusier took me on was because he thought I could carry through ideas; I was familiar with current technology, I knew how to use it and, what is more, I had ideas about the uses it could be put to. Le Corbusier had no time for what he called 'le blah blah blah'; he detested it. So when I arrived, he set me to work straight away on his theme of casiers (storage systems), metal chairs and tables…
Originally designed by Perriand in 1927 for her own apartment, this tubular-steel chair was exhibited in 1928 at the Salon des Artistes Decorateurs. The next year it was put into production by Thonet as the B302, in association with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. Image via the Victoria and Albert Museum
3. Along with Pierre Jeanneret, she influenced some of Le Corbusier's most famous designs
Perriand's specialized knowledge of metal technologies and tubular steel helped Le Corbusier develop some of the most recognizable furniture of the 20th century, including the B306 chaise longue, the Grand Confort series of chairs and sofas, and the "chair with a swinging back." However, like many of the women we have profiled in this series, her collaborative efforts were mostly forgotten until recently. Perhaps, then, it's a small consolation that she wasn't the only one overshadowed by Le Corbusier—his cousin and collaborator since 1922, Pierre Jeanneret, was also denied co-authorship of the designs. Cassina, having reissued much of the furniture, now properly credits all three collaborators, including their signatures in tandem as a mark of authenticity.
Easy chair from the Grand Confort series, which was designed in 1928 by Perriand, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret and which capitalized on Perriand's previous experience working with tubular steel. Image via the Museum of Modern Art
The "chair with a swinging back" was also designed by Perriand, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret in 1928. It reflected Le Corbusier's desire to create a comfortable chair for socializing, instead of an "instrument of torture that keeps you admirably awake," as he referred to other seating. Image via the Museum of Modern Art
One of the most famous furniture objects of the 20th century is the adjustable B306 chaise longue designed in 1928 by Perriand, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret and produced under Perriand's supervision. Above: an early prototype of the chair. Image via the Vitra Design Museum
4. She was marooned in the Far East for six years
In 1940, Perriand was invited by the Japanese government to travel to their country and advise on products for export. But when Perriand left France she did not realize that World War II would make it impossible for her to return home. Instead, she stayed on in Japan until 1943 and then decamped for Vietnam (then part of French Indochina), where she stayed until 1946. During her time in Japan she studied local materials, visited craftsmen and manufacturers, and tried her hand at designs that were influenced by the Eastern vernacular. If Perriand's earlier modernist work was concerned with, as she put it, "things that gleamed," then this phase was defined by her interest in more natural materials. This was very much evidenced in her 1941 chaise longue made of thin bamboo strips and in the rustic mountain retreats she began designing in the post-war years.
A bamboo chaise longue designed by Perriand during her trip to Japan in 1941
Perriand's 1960 design for a mountain chalet in Meribel-les-Allues, France, included strong Japanese influences.
5. Her design thinking was highly influenced by The Book of Tea
On her the long journey between the ports of Marseille and Kobe, Perriand read The Book of Tea, a 1906 treatise on tea culture by Kakuzo Okakura that introduced Western readers to Japanese thinking and tradition. Between Okakura's musings ("Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence"), Perriand found a framework for infusing her own designs with what she extolls as "the virtues of an integrated approach—architecture-furniture-environment—creating a harmonious interior space."
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In 2013, Louis Vuitton realized an unbuilt 1934 project by Perriand called "La Maison au Bord de l'Eau" which perfectly encapsulates her integrated approach to design.
6. She was interested in designs that liberated
Perriand rejoined Corbusier and Jeanneret in 1950 to design a modular kitchen unit for the Unité d'Habitation, a post-war housing project in Marseille. Here she introduced a kitchen that was integrated into the living room—separated only by a high counter—which, she noted in her autobiography, was revolutionary because it "allowed the mistress of the house to be with her family and friends while she was cooking. Gone were the days when a woman was completely isolated like a slave at the northern end of a corridor. Women could really capitalize on the harmonious layout."
The modular kitchen unit Perriand designed in 1950 (and realized in 1952) for the Unité d'Habitation, shown installed in a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013. Image via Architizer
Perriand's design included a high counter with a pass-through door for easy access and communication with the living room beyond.