The Magpie Anthology

Charlotte Perriand : The Modern Life

There is no way I can beat the brilliant headline The Financial Times produced to describe this exhibition.  ‘Charlotte Perriand: The thrill of the chaise at the Design Museum.’ This is the first retrospective of her work in the UK for 25 years and it draws on her archives in Paris and sheds new light on her creative process.

I first came across her work when visiting Villa Savoye à Poissy, near Paris. This weekend retreat is the last in Le Corbusier’s white villa cycle and perfectly encapsulates the Modernist architectural vocabulary. Known as a modernist manifesto and formulated by Le Corbusier in 1927 as the fundamental principles of the Modern movement, reinforced concrete for constructing the supporting piers, roof garden, open plan design, horizontal windows and free design of the façade – all applied in the design of the Villa Savoye. The house has examples of the modernist metal tubular furniture that I, up until then, thought was the work of Corbusier.

In 1928 Perriand, who at the time was working for Corbusier,  designed three chairs from his  principles that the chair was a “machine for sitting,” and that each of the three would accommodate different positions for different tasks. At his request, a chair was made for conversation: the B301 sling back chair; another for relaxation: the LC2 Grand Comfort Chair and the last and best known, for sleeping: the B306 chaise longue. The chairs had tubular steel frames. In the prototype models, the steel was painted; in production the steel tubes were nickel- or chromium-plated. Examples of these designs including the full scale drawings by Perriand, are on show at this new exhibition.

Perriand was born in 24 October 1903 and died in 1999. She was a French architect and designer. Her work aimed to create functional living spaces in the belief that better design helps in creating a better society. At Le Corbusier’s studio, where she worked for ten years, she was in charge of their interiors work and promoting their designs through a series of exhibitions. Perriand described the work as being highly collaborative between Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret (his cousin) and herself; they were “three fingers on one hand.

In the mid 1930s Perriand’s design ethos turned away from the machine aesthetic and her work took on a more organic form as she photographed elements of nature and designed free form tables. During the second world war, Perriand spent two years in Japan where she gave advice to the government on how they could modernise their traditional crafts. Being a designer in post war Europe was an exciting time to be involved in the reconstruction and modernisation that was going on. Perriand designed interiors for student dormitories in Paris and Air France offices around the world; but her crowning achievement was the Ski resort of Les Arcs. This is where she brought to fruition her vision of design, architecture and landscaping coming together as an integrated whole. She collaborated with architect Gaston Regairaz and many engineers including Jean Prouvé, but it was Perriand who took the creative lead. She had already worked on two previous ski resorts during the 1950s and 60s. Les Arcs was on a much larger scale. Accommodating 30,000 people, it was built at three different altitudes, 1600, 1800, 2000 meters. Work began in 1967 and took more than twenty years to complete.

At the heart of Perriand’s nearly seventy year career was a desire to balance contrasting elements of craftsmanship industrial production, urban and rural, East and West. Influenced by the sense of space in traditional Japanese interiors, she sought the openness and flexibility in her own –qualities that came to define modern living. Many of the ideas that we take for granted today, such as open plan living, shelving room dividers and paper lanterns, originated from her. They still look fresh and modern today yet many originated in the late nineteen twenties. This is an excellent exhibition well worth seeing.

On at the Design Museum London until 5th September 2021

Review by Juliet Bawden

Photography: Felix Speller
Models: Sube Wallen and Amani Bouri, with thanks to WOKE Management

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