In an industry dominated by men, French architect and designer Charlotte Perriand (24 October 1903–27 October 1999) stands out not merely because she was female, but because of an impressive oeuvre of beautiful, comfortable and functional designs. She was among the most important furniture designers and architects of the mid-20th century. A proponent of modernism, she worked alongside other big names such as Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Jean Prouvé, Fernand Léger and Ernö Goldfinger. Her work was anchored in “the art of living” or l’art de vivre. As she says in her 1981 article “L’Art de Vivre”: “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.” Throughout her career, her aesthetic would evolve from one Machine Age–inspired (glass, steel and other metallics) to one more organic and nature-inspired.
Born in Paris, France, Perriand’s father was a tailor and her mother a seamstress. As a child, she would visit her paternal grandparents in the remote mountainous region of Savoie, France. Throughout life, she retained a love for the beauty of the French Alps. Fittingly, in her 60s, she would design a house for herself and ski resorts in the Savoie.
In high school art class, her teacher noticed her remarkable drawing talent. Her mother urged her to enroll in the Ecole de L’Union Centrale de Arts Decoratifs (School of the Central Union of Decorative Arts), where she took furniture design from 1920 to 1925. Two designers influenced and encouraged her to work at this time. The first was the school’s artistic director, Henri Rapin, a well-known interior designer. Under him, Perriand learned the discipline of making her ideas concrete, by putting them down on the drawing board and executing them into the finished product. This discipline would later enable her to produce the furniture items that would make her famous during her career. The second was Maurice Dufrêne, studio director of the La Maîtrise design workshop of the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris. As with other large department stores at the time, the Galeries Lafayette made design classes available and Perriand, to supplement her learning, attended Dufrêne’s lectures. Dufrêne displayed her wall-hanging designs at the department store; later, they were machine-fabricated on a larger scale. Perriand’s school projects were selected for exhibit at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.
The Bar sous le toit
After Perriand’s graduation, her mentors advised her to have her work exhibited. In 1927, she created the design that launched her career: the Bar sous le toit (“Bar under the roof” or “Bar in the attic”). First applied to her apartment, it featured a built-in wall bar and a card table with drink holders. Her materials were aluminium, glass, and chrome. She submitted this design as an entry to the 1927 Salon d’Automne, with aluminium and nickel-plated surfaces, leather cushions, and glass shelves. Her bold design made a sensation and brought her much acclaim. Moreover, it established her aesthetic as reflecting the “age of the machine”—gleaming glass, steel and metals, geometric patterns—and modern ways of expression. Her choice was all the bolder because these were materials used mainly by men and was a departure from the École’s preference for finely handcrafted wooden objects.
Collaboration with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret
Casting about for a new project after the success of the Bar sous le toit, and at the recommendation of a friend, Perriand read books by Le Corbusier, an acclaimed architect, designer, and pioneer of modern architecture. His views about the decorative arts aligned with the way she designed. Perriand went to his atelier at 35 rue de Sèvres to seek a position. By her account, Le Corbusier gave her portfolio a passing glance and said, “We don’t embroider cushions here.” Unfazed, Perriand left her card and invited him to see her exhibit at the Salon d’Automne. When Le Corbusier saw her Bar sous le toit a month later, she was hired. Perriand was then 24 years old.
Thus began a fruitful period of collaboration between Le Corbusier, his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, and Perriand from 1927 to 1937. Perriand’s assignment was interiors work or furniture for the modern home, as well as promoting their designs through exhibitions. Among the notable works were three chairs with different positions and purposes: the B301, a sling-back armchair made for conversation; the chunky LC2 Grand Confort armchair for relaxation; and the famous B306 chaise longue, with a swooping frame and upholstery made of hide, for sleeping. The series was based on Le Corbusier’s principle that the chair was a “machine for sitting.” The chairs had tubular nickel- or chrome-plated tubular steel frames. Created in 1928, these became icons of early modernist furniture, with the chaise longue marketed by Thonet two years later. Perriand also contributed to the exhibit “Equipment for the Home,” a model modern apartment complete with kitchen and bathroom. It was featured in the Salon d’Autumne in 1929.
In the 1930s, Perriand started working with wood and cane as chrome was expensive. This aligned with future developments in her aesthetic, in which she embraced natural materials and forms.
Nevertheless, though she left Le Corbusier’s studio in 1937, she would collaborate with him and Pierre Jeanneret in later projects.
Perriand’s personal life was not at a standstill either. In 1926, she married Percy Kilner Scholefield, a wealthy Englishman. They separated in 1930 and Perriand moved to Montparnasse.
The War Period
Perriand worked with architect and designer Jean Prouvé, whose focus was metal objects such as screens and stair railings. Theirs was a successful partnership and friendship. During the war, they designed military barracks and interiors for temporary housing for the French army. They parted ways when France surrendered to Germany in 1940 but would work together again in the 1950s.
Before France’s surrender, the Japanese embassy invited Perriand to be an official government advisor on industrial design. The Japanese government hoped to raise standards in the design industry to market more Japanese products to the West. Perriand left France on the day Germany entered Paris. While executing her responsibility as an advisor, Perriand was also inspired by Japanese aesthetics and culture. Repatriated to Vietnam in 1942, she studied their woodworking and weaving techniques and use of natural materials. Though she returned to Paris in 1946, Eastern design would continue to influence her work.
While in Vietnam, Perriand married her second husband, Jacques Martin, with whom she had a daughter, Pernette.
Back in Paris, Perriand resumed her career as an independent designer and collaborations with other designers such as Jean Prouvé. Along with other noted designers, she exhibited at the salons of the Société des artistes décorateurs. These salons were sponsored by makers of such materials as formica, plywood and steel, popular materials right after the war.
Perriand was in high demand at this time. In 1947, she worked on the design of Hôpital Saint-Lo with Fernand Léger. In 1950, she designed a prototype modular kitchen and interiors for Le Corbusier’s famous Unité d’Habitation apartment building in Marseille and again in Tokyo in 1959. In 1951, she organised the French section of the Triennale di Milano and collaborated on the Hotel de France in Conakry, Guinea. With Jean Prouvé, she produced desks and other furniture for the University of Paris. The bookshelves of slim pine with brightly painted aluminium dividers are minimalist standouts. Another important project was the League of Nations building for the United Nations in Geneva in 1957. In 1959, she teamed up again with Le Corbusier and with Brazilian architect Lucio Costa for the interior of the Maison du Brésil at the Cité Universitaire in Paris. The French Tourist Office on London’s Piccadilly was a collaboration between her and Ernő Goldfinger in 1960. She also worked on the remodeling of Air France’s offices in London, Paris and Tokyo.
From the 1960s to 1980s, she designed what is considered the pinnacle of her career—a series of ski resorts at Les Arcs in Savoie. For this long-running endeavour, her love for the French Alps and her interests in prefabrication, standardisation and industrialisation all came together. The resorts had minimal cell-style rooms but huge spaces that opened to nature, reflecting that guests visit the resorts with the intention of spending time outdoors. She applied standardisation to the bathrooms and kitchens to allow hundreds of inhabitable units to be built quickly and efficiently. This massive project showcased Perriand’s caliber and longevity.
Design Principles and Recognition
Over the years, Perriand sought to make good design accessible. One issue with designers then was that their prototypes seldom made it to production. Perriand knew how to use the current technology to realise good furniture. She developed designs that could be mass-produced, employing standardisation, prefabrication, and flexible use of materials. Nevertheless, her work is always considered beautiful.
In 1979, Perriand received the official medal of the National Order of Merit, affixed by no less than Jean Prouvé. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris held a retrospective of her work in 1985. She published her autobiography, Une Vie de Création (A Life of Creation) in 1998. In the same year, the Design Museum in London held another retrospective of her work. Today, her pieces command high prices and are found in major public and private collections.