Credit: FLC/ Adagp, Paris 2019

Charlotte Perriand: the radical, unsung heroine of design

Her sleek dwellings for free-spirited flappers were way ahead of their time. Now the visionary modernist is being celebrated – in a major exhibition in Paris. By Dominic Lutyens.

Mention Charlotte Perriand to the average design buff and her name tends to be inextricably, solely linked with Le Corbusier and his cousin and business colleague Pierre Jeanneret. The trio co-created great classic pieces of 20th-Century furniture including the Grand Confort armchair that encases loose cushions within a tubular steel cage, and the Chaise Longue Basculante, a rocking chaise longue incorporating a bolster, which are still in production now. Reinforcing their modernity is a photograph taken at the time, showing Perriand recumbent on the chaise longue, face enigmatically turned away from the camera, her androgynous Eton crop and her design for a necklace fashioned from ballbearings only just visible.

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But if Paris-born Perriand’s identity has been largely eclipsed by her association with Le Corbusier, a major new exhibition, Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, tells a different story – she produced a huge, multifaceted body of work, and enjoyed international success. The show marks the 20th anniversary of the designer’s death in 1999, aged 96, and displays more than 200 of her designs, as well as works by others in her avant-garde milieu, including Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger, US-Japanese  landscape architect Isamu Noguchi – famous for his sculptural minimalist lighting with paper shades – and painters Pierre Soulages and Hans Hartung, known for their gestural, abstract style.

Perriand was primarily introduced to modernist ideas by Le Corbusier’s book, Vers une Architecture (Toward an Architecture), his influential call to arms for unadorned, functionalist architecture. In 1927 she applied to work at his Paris studio only to be rebuffed with the condescending remark: “We don’t embroider cushions here”. Yet Le Corbusier soon backtracked. Having seen and admired her installation, Bar Under the Roof – a recreation of her studio-and-apartment in Place Saint-Sulpice in the Quartier Latin – at the Salon d’Automne in 1927, he offered her a job.

The  sophisticated, hedonistic space boasted a glass and chrome bar, a card table and a gramophone

Perriand’s interior reflected her youthful obsession with cars and the cinema, both emblematic of modernity, and her adoption of a lifestyle unshackled by convention, which she dubbed “l’art de vivre” (The art of life). The sophisticated, hedonistic space boasted a glass and chrome bar, a card table and a gramophone – heaven for a free-spirited flapper. It included her Siège Pivotant, a compact armchair with a swivelling seat, whose kinetic quality arguably predated the furniture co-created with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret. The flat’s radically open-plan interior encouraged freedom of movement, while its layout was informally partitioned with freestanding storage units so that it could be easily reconfigured.

A new world

“Le Corbusier realised Perriand’s capacity to help forge a modern new world – hence the show’s title,” says Jean-Paul Claverie, a senior adviser to Bernard Arnault, chairman of the gallery. In 1929, Perriand, Jeanneret and Le Corbusier presented a joint project – the similarly flexible Interior, Design of a Dwelling, at the Salon d’Automne.

Raised by artesans, she knew about luxurious materials but detested bourgeois homes – Pernette Perriand

Claverie met Perriand’s daughter Pernette Perriand in the 1990s and then, five years ago, they hatched the idea for the Fondation exhibition. “We wanted to celebrate Perriand’s career, her relationship with modernity and the new place of women in the artistic world in the 20th Century,” he says.

One fascinating aspect of Perriand is her extraordinary toughness. After all, she was single-minded enough to transcend the prejudices women faced in a predominantly male-dominated world. It helped that her mother, a seamstress, encouraged her to study furniture at the Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. “Charlotte was tutored in a traditional way by such Art Deco designers as Henri Rapin,” says Pernette, who assisted her mother for many years. “But she had a more revolutionary mindset. Raised by artesans, she knew about luxurious materials but detested bourgeois homes. She hated separate kitchens; she liked being with her friends when entertaining them.”

Claverie ascribes Perriand’s success partly to seismic social changes in Europe after World War One: “Many monarchies were disappearing, France witnessed the emancipation of women who could study the baccalauréat from the mid-1920s. The Russian revolution had happened recently; revolutions were still romantic. Perriand moved in avant-garde circles. She was a habitué of Paris’s Café de Flore, consorting with Picasso and her neighbour Léger, whom she met in 1930.”

In 1937, Perriand stopped working with Le Corbusier. “They parted temporarily, mainly on political grounds,’ explains Pernette. ‘Charlotte became highly politicised in the 30s, as did many intellectuals united against the rise of fascism. Perriand’s approach to architecture was collaborative, while Le Corbusier was more authoritarian and individualistic.”

In 1932, she and Léger joined the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires. In 1936, she created her monumental, polemical photocollage, La Grande Misère de Paris, reminiscent of Russian photomontage, which denounced unsanitary living conditions for many Parisians.

The Fondation has presented Perriand’s prolific output chronologically in a show occupying four floors. It allows for a fully immersive experience thanks to complete interiors reconstructed for the first time, beginning with Bar Under the Roof, Interior Design of a Dwelling and House of a Young Man, which visitors can explore. The exhibition includes two other projects not built in her lifetime – 1934’s House Beside the Water, appropriately erected on an expanse of water outside the gallery, and 1938’s Refuge Tonneau, co-designed with Jeanneret, a moveable, prefabricated shelter that could be erected on mountains and house up to 38 people.

However, Perriand was no dyed-in-the-wool modernist, believing that contemporary architecture should meet human needs. From the 1930s onwards, she increasingly looked to nature for inspiration, sparked perhaps by childhood memories of holidays spent in Savoie and her love of sport, especially skiing. She began creating what she called ‘free-form’ furniture, such as an ergonomic, wooden table with sides of different lengths, which allowed people to sit together intimately on the shorter sides, or further apart on the longer sides. She also became fascinated by naturally-eroded objects, from bones to pebbles, which she photographed, highlighting their abstract beauty – objects she dubbed “art brut” (raw art).

She designed open-plan interiors to ensure that women didn’t feel trapped in the kitchen

In 1940 she was invited by Japan to act as an adviser on its industrial arts. While there, she discovered an affinity with the country’s tradition of flexible room layouts, with their sliding partitions and furniture that could be stowed away when not in use. She also deployed traditional Japanese materials such as bamboo in her own work. In 1955, she organised the exhibition, Synthesis of the Arts, in Tokyo, which crystallised her belief that art, design and craft by different creatives could co-exist in a non-hierarchical way. It included a tapestry by Le Corbusier, with whom she renewed contact in the 1950s.    

Perriand was feted in postwar France as one of its foremost architects. In 1950, Elle magazine ran a feature envisioning its ideal, all-female French government, naming Perriand its ‘Minister of Reconstruction’. In 1952, she designed student accommodation for La Maison de la Tunisie at the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris. For Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation apartment block in Marseille, completed the same year, she designed open-plan interiors to ensure that women didn’t feel trapped in the kitchen. In 1967, she led a team of architects for her most ambitious project, the Les Arcs ski resort in Savoie. This modernist design avoided pastiche chalet architecture yet blended into the landscape: its tiered apartments lean into the slopes, while their terraces and enormous windows maximise views of the landscape.

It’s hardly surprising to hear from Pernette that Perriand worked all hours of the day: “She worked obsessively, stopping only for meals and a siesta. She’d often call me around midnight, saying, ‘I’ve got a new idea’. Her creative life meant everything to her. She would often say, ‘Weekends? What are they?’”. 

Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World is at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, until 24 February 2020.

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