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October 5 2019
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One of the Air France storefronts designed by Charlotte Perriand, London, 1957.

Charlotte Perriand’s first meeting with the imperious, bespectacled Le Corbusier is the stuff of architectural legend. When she, a precocious Arts Décoratifs graduate with a Josephine Baker crop, approached the great man for a job, he replied, “We don’t embroider cushions here.”

Then he and his cousin and partner, Pierre Jeanneret, saw her Bar sous le Toit, a hip space with metal stools she had confected for her tiny Saint-Sulpice apartment at the 1927 Salon d’Automne, and Le Corbusier knew he had made a mistake. He immediately offered her a spot among his devoted disciples in his interiors program.

“We don’t embroider cushions here.”

At the Louis Vuitton Foundation, in Paris, we now have a chance to review the architect and designer’s holistic practice in the exhibition “Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World,” through reconstructions, newly released documents, and images and artworks from her most admired collaborators. Perriand, who was born in 1903 and died in 1999, is revealed as a proto–contemporary visionary who embraced the changes of her century.

Perriand’s ski-resort project, Les Arcs, in Savoy.

Perriand originals can now demand fortunes—a cupboard went for around $200,000 at Phillips in London in 2018. The exhibition’s curators, among them her daughter, Pernette Perriand-Barsac, her soulmate and partner in the last decades of her long life, and son-in-law, Jacques Barsac, co-stewards of the archive—a seemingly bottomless trove of delights—have focused on Perriand’s seminal contributions, which “invite viewers to rethink art and design in society as not just objects of pleasure, but catalysts for profound transformation.”

Charlotte the Modernist

In a time when modernist theory surged to challenge the historicism of the Beaux-Arts, Perriand was also a kind of machine for living who nevertheless wore her heart on her geometric-patterned, diaphanous sleeves. For Le Corbusier, she became indispensable. She humanized him, brought him the vibrancy of the street, the chrome of cars, colors that were almost edible. She designed prototypes for the built-in but flexible modular units that became her specialty; the words “storage” and “Perriand” seem to have been separated at birth. Perriand was the original Marie Kondo, though since everything sparked joy in her, she rarely threw anything out (ergo, happily, the bottomless archive).

Headboards doubled as partitions, bathrooms were deposited in bedrooms, chairs—some collaborations with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret—reflected ergonomic principles: Look at me, sit on me, interact with me, each animated piece almost cried out. “This was a heroic, pioneering age,” she wrote in a memoir as crisp as the mountain air she so loved, despite having had to wrap her legs in newspaper at the atelier so her feet would not turn to ice.

Perriand originals now sell for fortunes—a cupboard for $200,000.

The Corbu system, which she described alternately as “blissful” and “heartache,” made architecture sound like a love affair—which for her, clearly, it was. When, later, the Pétain regime made changes to the accreditation system that took away her ability to practice as an architect, she was demoralized.

Perriand on the Chaise Longue Basculante B 306 in 1929. Designed by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Perriand.

Perriand gradually began to feel stifled in the Corbu atelier and dismayed at what her artisanal designs cost. She and Jeanneret, who had become her lover, often escaped to the mountains or the sea, collecting stones and shells, triggers for renewed creativity. She turned her attention to the wood that had surrounded her on vacations to her grandparents’ home in the Savoy Alps, and to crafting the vernacular: stools and chairs, then huts, farmhouses, and pre-fabs—one, the “Refuge Tonneau,” based on a children’s carousel, expressed her belief in the twin pillars of technology and nature.

An early advocate of regular, strenuous exercise, Perriand installed a gym in one prototype and even hung exercise rings from her new Montparnasse attic roof. A photograph of her topless on a rock-strewn beach was not quite the one that had pictured her fashionably clothed on her Chaise Longue Basculante, but it was the same Charlotte: independent, strong, fearless.

Comrade Charlotte

Aware of political forces “simmering beneath the world’s surface,” Perriand became a committed leftist who championed the housewife, the laborer, the student, the homeless, and joined international collectives of artists, architects, and writers intent on finding solutions to the world’s urban problems. She was the centrifugal force of many interlocking teams, often the only female surrounded by talented, powerful men, gathering up people—and navigating egos—the way she collected ideas and objects, all without compromising her basic principles of making the ordinary extraordinary.

Fernand Léger, whose walls abutted her apartment, was a particularly close confederate in uniting art and technology. Photomurals became part of her design tool kit and demonstrated her conviction that artistic creation and sociopolitical transformation were aligned. Design did not trump use. Thought experiments by the Popular Front inspired a later initiative she admired: could corn be grown on the Champs-Élysées?

Charlotte the Synthesizer

Her voyage on the eve of war at the invitation of the Japanese to improve design for exporting crafts to promote trade and then to Brazil to design a new home for second husband Jacques Martin, by then an Air France executive, whom she had first met during a visit to Indochina, where she was forced to remain after war broke out in Japan, gave new shadings to her interiors, in particular in the use of bamboo and exotic woods. To select was as important as to invent; to de-select even better.

A Perriand-designed table in hinoki wood with wool rug in black and red.

Perriand’s refusal to stay in a box—even if it was a beautiful one of her own design—aligned the needs of the individual with the communal. Living was an art, in harmony with nature, yet functional. She began a successful furnishings collaboration with Jean Prouvé that returned her to the use of metal for the innovative Paris gallery of Steph Simon. But a long-gestating project, Les Arcs—a ski-resort scheme she directed and modeled with sugar cubes that incorporated all her urbanist thinking—ran up against the small-is-beautiful ethic she had once espoused; in addition, a woman, her three children, and six suitcases were reportedly left stranded for days on the resort’s resource-challenged transport system that had been designed to get them to their chalet.

Could corn be grown on the Champs-Élysées?

Her parents, who had worked in couture, imbued her with a respect for craftsmanship, and though she would have bridled at being called a fashion icon, photographs tell the tale of her many incarnations from crop to top knot, from T-strap pumps to hiking boots. She herself adopted photography as a tool to capture enchantment and document her investigations. She wrote manifestos and essays, understanding intuitively she must promote herself and be published, prefiguring “influencers” by decades. But she worried about the impact of the Internet, “a rupture in civilization.” She preferred the hands-on sensation of being roped to her climbing partners, taking one step after another until they reached the top.

While not ignoring Perriand’s indelible modernist mentors, the curators have definitively exfiltrated her from their dominance over her history and ensured we will never make the same mistake as Le Corbusier.

Patricia Zohn is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL

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