Charlotte Perriand – A Design Visionary Architect

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Charlotte Perriand

A deep dive into the world of Charlotte Perriand whose modern designs shaped the 20th century and continue to have a lasting influence on the global design scape.

Everything changes so quickly, and what is a state of the art one moment won’t be the next. Adaptation has to be ongoing – we have to know and accept this. – Charlotte Perriand

Charlotte Perriand 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. In her article “L’Art de Vivre” from 1981 she states “The extension of the art of dwelling is the art of living — living in harmony with man’s deepest drives and with his adopted or fabricated environment.” Charlotte liked to take her time in space before starting the design process. In Perriand’s Autobiography, ‘Charlotte Perriand: A Life of Creation’, she states: “I like being alone when I visit a country or historic site. I like being bathed in its atmosphere, feeling in direct contact with the place without the intrusion of a third party.”

Her approach to design included taking in the site and appreciating it for what it is. Perriand felt she connected with any site she was working with or just visiting. Perriand was born in Paris, France, in 1903, to a tailor and a seamstress. Her high school art teacher noticed her drawing abilities early on, and her mother eventually encouraged her to enroll in the École de L’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs (“School of the Central Union of Decorative Arts”) in 1920 to study furniture design until 1925. One of her noted teachers during this period was Art Deco interior designer Henri Rapin.

Perriand continued her education by attending department store classes that provided design workshops. She also went to lectures by Maurice Dufrêne, the studio director of the workshop ‘La Maîtrise’. In 1925, her projects from schoolwork were selected to be a part of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Dufrêne also put her wall-hanging designs on display at the Galeries Lafayette around this time. Two years after graduating Perriand renovated her apartment into a room with a built-in wall bar made of aluminum, glass, and chrome and a card table with built-in pool-pocket drink holders. She recreated this design as the Bar sous le Toit (Bar under the roof, i.e. “in the attic”) at the 1927 Salon d’Automne.

Her design featured an abundance of light-reflecting aluminum and nickel-plated surfaces, as well as leather cushions and glass shelves. Her design received wide praise from the press and established Perriand as a talent to watch. The Bar sous le Toit showed her preference for designs that represented the machine age, a departure from the preference of the time for finely handcrafted objects made of rare woods. Perriand took advantage of the use of steel as a medium in this project, which formerly was used primarily by men.

Despite the success of the Bar sous le Toit in getting her name known, Perriand was not satisfied with creating designs just for the well-off, she wanted to work for Le Corbusier and pursue serial production and low-cost housing. She was inspired by his books because she thought his writings that criticized the decorative arts aligned with the way she designed them. When she applied to work at Le Corbusier’s studio in October 1927, she was famously rejected with the reply “We don’t embroider cushions here.”

A month later, however, Le Corbusier visited the Bar sous le Toit at the Salon d’Automne, which convinced him to offer her a job in furniture design. At Le Corbusier’s studio, she was in charge of their interior 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.” After working with Le Corbusier for a decade she “stepped out of his shadow into a successful career of her own. She also worked with Jean Prouvé.

Charlotte Perriand’s work was in high demand and she worked on many projects from ski resorts to student housing. In 1926 Perriand married her first husband, Percy Kilner Scholefield. In 1930 Charlotte and Percy separated and she moved to Montparnasse. She had a daughter born in 1944, Pernette, with her second husband, Jacques Martin, who worked alongside her mother for over 25 years. She died three days after her 96th birthday in 1999.

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