When the Design Museum staged its retrospective of French architect and designer Charlotte Perriand in 1996, it was to be one of the final chapters of a remarkable life that spanned the century almost exactly.
Twenty-five years later, her legacy as one of its greatest innovators is under the spotlight once more. ‘She deserves to be better known,’ says chief curator Justin McGuirk, who was keen to build on the momentum generated by a vast exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris two years ago. ‘It was a real opportunity to bring Perriand back to London.’
The narrative that hovers around the designer as a victim of modernism’s boys club is an oversimplification, says the curator. ‘If she was held back, it was more by history. She was taken very seriously by her peers.’
And what peers. There was Spanish architect José Lluis Sert, who likened her holistic approach to interiors to that of an urban planner; fellow modernist heroes Jean Prouvé and Pierre Jeanneret; the painter Fernand Léger and, of course, Le Corbusier, who famously tried to send her packing with his quip: ‘We don’t embroider cushions here!’ Perriand would go on to design for him for a decade. ‘She was, above all, a great collaborator. She thrived on it,’ says McGuirk.
While Perriand herself would often exhibit pieces by Léger and Le Corbusier alongside her own, this exhibition makes sparing deviations from her work across seven decades. ‘It’s really the story of her life,’ says McGuirk. ‘You start at her first project, and you end at her last.’
The first of three distinct sections introduces Perriand the dogmatic modernist, an exponent of the machine age whose creations in glass and stainless steel speak of the movement’s sharpest edges.
‘That early period was a kind of avant-garde assault on the home,’ explains McGuirk. If credit for these designs has since favoured Le Corbusier, it doesn’t present a fair picture of input. ‘He had the broad intellectual principles, she was the one translating them into furniture,’ he adds.
Shown alongside finished pieces are prototypes, photos and sketchbooks, where ideas are puzzled out on page, such as her ‘Chaise Longue Basculante’ with lever in tow (later dismissed as an inelegant solution). ‘You can see her handwriting, her sketches – they’re messy and unprecious,’ says McGuirk. ‘You get a sense of someone at work.’
An independent and tireless traveller, Perriand spent time in Brazil and two crucial years in Japan, where she found inspiration in traditional craft and a sense of interior space. A minimalist, then? Not quite, says McGuirk. ‘When she found her own voice, she found both warmth and calm. It’s that influence of different traditions, the Japanese, the peasant architecture of the mountains – and the modernist. She was a great synthesiser.’
If this second segment reveals her shift in focus toward nature’s organic forms, the third is the great reconciliation. Post-war, Perriand began to fuse the rural with the urban, craft with industrialisation, wood with metal.
As modernism grappled with the new frontier of mass tourism in the 1950s, she designed interiors for Air France, including an office on London’s New Bond Street, which has been reconstructed for the exhibition. ‘Installations play to Perriand’s whole thesis that architecture and furniture need to exist in unison. They bring that sense of immersion,’ explains McGuirk.
So, too, will the opportunity to sit on some of her most famous and prized designs, courtesy of Cassina, the exhibition’s Reconstruction Content Partner, including the chaise longue and ‘Fauteuil Pivotant’ chair.
A proponent of the portable, flexible and modular, Perriand was ‘good with small spaces’, says the curator, who singles out the deceptively compact rooms of her spectacular 30,000-bed ski resort Les Arcs, which reveals itself in a virtual tour. With much conceived for mass production ‘she was disappointed that the furniture she designed with Le Corbusier became so elitist,’ he adds.
Perriand, who passed away aged 96 in 1999, had a knack for quotable wisdom, and McGuirk’s most loved is: ‘Better to spend a day in the sun than to spend it dusting our useless objects.’ That, he believes, ‘has to do with storage. It lets you hide things away, and go out and play.’ Perriand’s days in the sun were spent hiking, swimming and skiing in the mountains of her beloved Savoie in France, which inspired her and Jeanneret’s futuristic alpine pod ‘Le Refuge Tonneau’.
A famous image shows her in a kind of exultant embrace with Savoie’s snowy peaks, naked back turned to the camera and arms thrust skyward. For McGuirk, Perriand offers a blueprint for living with unfettered curiosity and courage. ‘I look at her and think, “What a life”.’ ‘Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life’, 19 June–5 September 2021. designmuseum.org
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