Jess McHugh is a Paris-based journalist covering history, culture, and identity. Jess’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Time, among many others. Her first book, AMERICANON—about how bestselling books shaped U.S. identity—will be published in 2020.
The pioneering French designer and architect is the subject of a new retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.
Few people who have spent time in a college dormitory or studio apartment would describe their experience with the phrase l’art de vivre, or “the art of living.” But for the French architect and designer Charlotte Perriand, that was always the goal.
Each space she created was tailored to the purpose and type of person for whom it was destined. A young professional, an art collector, and a Parisian student hardly had the same needs (or the same amount of space and money), and Perriand acknowledged this. Instead, she sought to give them what we all hope for as we live and work in seemingly ever-smaller urban spaces: some degree of flow and harmony. Where others saw problems, she saw dynamic solutions.
For her own apartment in the Latin Quarter of Paris, she designed a table in an irregular hexagon shape that would fit a small space and permit seven attendees of a dinner party to see and hear each other. One of her best-known co-creations is an ergonomic chaise longue, designed around the human body to allow for movement and comfort.
“Living is about bringing to life what is within us,” she once said. “How do we want to live?”
The Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris—a Frank Gehry-designed museum that is sponsored by the luxury-good company LVMH, and opened in 2014—has dedicated a major retrospective both to Perriand’s life and to the way she helped others live, marking the 20th anniversary of her death.
A close collaborator of the architect Le Corbusier and friend to a host of major 20th-century artists (including Joan Miró and Alexander Calder), Perriand spent much of her career in the shadow of famous men. In photos of her with her colleagues in the 1920s and 1930s, she is the only woman (a fact that neither her Josephine Baker haircut nor her garconne style can quite mask). It wasn’t until after her death that her pieces started to sell for higher and higher prices. Today, while she may be known in fine-art and design circles, she’s hardly a household name.
Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World, which runs through February 24, 2020, displays 200 creations from Perriand alongside 200 works of art by the likes of Calder, Míro, and Picasso. In the museum, it is these men who are in her shadow. Even an enormous reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica serves as a backdrop for Perriand’s designs.
Born in 1903 to a tailor father and seamstress mother, Perriand grew up in Paris. She attended a decorative-arts college at the urging of her mother. She had a kind of revelation while reading Le Corbusier’s books The Decorative Art of Today and Toward an Architecture. In her memoirs, she would later describe showing up at Le Corbusier’s studio, portfolio of her designs in hand, hoping to work for the celebrated Modernist. After flipping through a few of her drawings, he said, “We don’t embroider cushions here,” and showed her the door.
It wasn’t until Le Corbusier saw her Bar sous le toit (“Bar under the roof”) at the 1927 Fall Salon that he did an about-face. This was a sleek modern bar in aluminum and nickel, compact enough to fit into her own little attic apartment. He hired her, and she would work in his atelier for the next 10 years; he would routinely take credit for her designs.
Throughout her long life, Perriand was preoccupied with the question: How do we make the space we have work for us? Across vastly different eras, materials, and designs—from 1920s steel benches to 1950s bamboo recliners—she chased the idea that interior design should make daily life both easier and more beautiful. Emerging from the heavy drapery and furniture that pervaded much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Perriand looked to bring light, air, and space into even the tiniest of spaces.
Her 1950s designs for Parisian student dorms are a triumph in this regard. She incorporated a sleek bookshelf, desk, chair, sink, and bed (with a sliding trundle table underneath) in only a few square meters, without making the room feel cramped. Earlier designs, like the model apartment she helped create for the 1929 Fall Salon in Paris, used open floor plans to maximize space. The sleek desk set (with a modern swivel chair) could fit just as easily in a 1950s, ’70s, or even contemporary apartment.
Often the only woman among so many men, she considered with special detail a woman’s place in the home. Perriand collaborated with Le Corbusier on his enormous and influential housing complex in Marseille, Unite d’Habitation (1947-52). Her role in the project is often overlooked, but she was instrumental in its interior design and in particular the plan for the kitchen. Inspired in part by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt kitchen and by new American designs, she devised an open kitchen with a standing bar that separated it from the living room.
“Storage, bookcases, chaises longues … everything was designed in the goal of making women’s lives easier,” Perriand’s daughter, Pernette Perriand-Barsac, told the French newspaper L’Express. “In the Marseille housing unit, she created the open kitchen so that women would not always be relegated to the back of the apartment.”
One object that Perriand returned to over and over was the bookcase. Her bookcases were enormous creations in bright, primary colors (à la Calder or Piet Mondrian) used for storage, decoration, and to serve as spatial dividers.
So many high-quality furnishings—even today—seem destined for the 1 percent of people who can afford to have several bedrooms and a vast dining room. Perriand’s egalitarianism is refreshing. At the same time, a paradox exists in this utopian vision of design as a kind of great equalizer, accessible to everyone. Perriand seemed to mold each creation to its setting, but many of her designs were intended to be replicated or mass produced. How do you make something tailored to one life, and thousands of lives?
Critics have argued that it’s impossible to separate Le Corbusier the designer of sweeping rationalist schemes from his politics, as he was an admirer of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and spent nearly two years trying to win the favor of France’s puppet government under the Nazi occupation. (He also built projects in Soviet Russia.) Perriand’s designs maintain a sense of un-machine-like humanity, and perhaps that’s because she too cannot be separated from her politics. She dedicated her political energies to the Popular Front, a left-wing movement that would produce the first socialist and first Jewish prime minister of France (Léon Blum, who came to power in 1936).
Perriand made large-scale friezes for the Popular Front, including a piece to denounce the reign of fascist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and another that criticized the deplorable health and living conditions of Paris’s poorest residents. By 1937, she had left Le Corbusier’s atelier altogether.
After spending the wartime years in Japan and Vietnam, which left a deep imprint on her, and following the liberation of France, Perriand returned home to join efforts to rebuild. At her request, artists like Picasso, Calder, and Fernand Léger contributed to her projects for exhibitions and new model homes, and she worked closely with the designer Jean Prouvé. In 1947, Elle magazine named her “minister of the reconstruction” in a project for an imagined women-only government.
As her career progressed over the course of the 20th century, she didn’t stick to domestic interiors, but produced (for example) travel agencies for Air France and a tea house for UNESCO, and master-planned a huge ski resort in the Alps. When asked by journalists, she frequently refused to categorize herself as either a designer or an architect, saying instead, “I don’t define myself. That would be a limitation.” As this retrospective makes clear, we are fortunate that she didn’t.