Corb Your Enthusiasm: Charlotte Perriand, The Woman Behind Le Corbusier's Furniture Designs

Retrospect

Last week we discussed the controversial Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Although his architecture is largely out of style — the apex of 20th century functionalism — his furniture is still a popular modernist touch in many contemporary interiors. The designer primarily responsible for Le Corbusier’s furniture was Charlotte Perriand, one of the rare women in the field at the time. Hers is a great story of talent combined with determination, and we’ll look at it today.After World War I, women had more opportunities than they had before, but they were still barred from many professions. For example, women were welcome at the Bauhaus, but they were not allowed to study furniture making or architecture, and nearly all were shunted to the weaving workshop. Within this context, along came the 24-year-old art school-grad Charlotte Perriand, bored by the traditional Beaux-Arts designs around her, hoping to design furniture using new industrial materials.

Inspired by Le Corbusier’s publications, Vers une Architecture (Towards an Architecture) and L’Art Décoratif d’Aujourd’hui (Today’s Decorative Arts), she applied for a job at his atelier in 1927, and was famously rejected with the line, “We don’t embroider cushions here” (Charming!).

In the face of rejection, Perriand renovated, turning her own small apartment into a sleek barroom made out of chrome, aluminum and glass, which she then recreated for that year’s Salon d’Automne (the 20th-century version of the Paris Salon). Le Corbusier’s cousin and collaborator, Pierre Jeanneret, brought him to see the bar, and Le Corbusier was so impressed that he changed his mind and hired Perriand as a furniture designer. How’s that for a fairy tale story?

It is Perriand who, alongside Le Corbusier and Jeanneret, designed the pieces we associate with the main man (image 2). Le Corbusier wrote in L’Art Décoratif d’Aujourd’hui that furniture should be equipment for living, designed as an extension of a person, as though it were a part of him (this is before ‘ergonomics’ was applied to anything other than manual labor), and should be well suited to its task. Now he needed appropriate furniture to put in his new domestic architectural commissions, like Villa Savoye.

Perriand, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret designed several chairs that year, each with specific purposes. The conversation chair is the B301 (image 3). Like Marcel Breuer’s seminal “Wassily” chair, designed at the Bauhaus only a couple years before, the B301 uses tubular steel as a frame, with fabric stretched and cantilevered to form a comfortable non-upholstered chair. Unlike Breuer’s chair, the B301 has a back that rocks with the sitter’s movement, achieving the connection between body and furniture that Le Corbusier sought. The B302 (image 4), was more of a desk chair; it swiveled, and its back was shaped to cradle the sitter.

The relaxation chair was the LC2 “Grand Confort” armchair, basically a steel tube frame with padded upholstery around it, which you surely know from Maxell’s “Blown Away” ad from the ‘80s (image 5). The chair for sleep is the very sexy B306 chaise longue (image 7), which seems to be the most popular Le Corbusier design in today’s homes (images 8-9). Like the B301, the B306 moves with the sitter’s body, with a range of motion all the way to a full recline (image 1).

An important question is the extent to which these designs were a collaboration, or if they were Perriand’s own but with the guidance of her superiors at the atelier. Different sources treat attribution differently: some credit Perriand alone, others credit Le Corbusier alone, but each mention the other two names as being partly responsible for the designs. Among the three, it seems that ego rarely interfered, and they enjoyed fruitful working relationships for many decades. A telling comparison is between Pierre Jeanneret’s low “Scissor” chair from 1949 (image 10), which he made while working alongside Perriand, and Perriand’s low chair of 1954 (image 11) – it is difficult to tease apart influence and direct contribution when it comes to design.

Perriand left Le Corbusier’s atelier in 1937, but continued to collaborate occasionally with him and with Jeanneret. She also worked with Jean Prouvé and the artist Fernand Leger, among other important designers. She lived for nearly two years in Japan, and four years in Vietnam, where she learned weaving and furniture caning.

In both 1941 and 1955, Perriand mounted exhibitions in Tokyo at the department store Takashimaya. The designs she exhibited there bear obvious traces of the influence of the skills and sensibilities she developed abroad while retaining a distinctly European character. Her chaise longue basculante (1940), which she made in Japan, is a bamboo version of the B306 (image 12), while her Ombre chair (1953) referenced Bunraku, the traditional Japanese puppet theater (image 13, left). Her stackable “Air France” table and her Nuage (“cloud”) shelves (both 1954) were conceived in conjunction with Jean Prouvé (image 13, right, and image 14), and show a perfect marriage of her Japanese-informed aesthetic and Prouvé’s groundbreaking industrial modernism.

Perriand was also an accomplished architect in her own right, but I find her furniture – and her story – especially timeless and appealing. At a time when women were expected to stay home and "embroider cushions," Perriand bent tubular steel and traveled the world in search of a modern aesthetic. Although too often obscured by Le Corbusier's fame, Perriand designed some of modern furniture's worthy icons.

Loving her work? You can own Perriand’s designs if you’d like. Cassina has exclusive rights to their reproductions. Wanting to read more? An upcoming book in the Objects and Furniture Design by Architects series will focus on Charlotte Perriand, and will be available next year. In the meantime, you can read Perriand’s biography, published in 1998, the year before she died.

Images 1 Charlotte Perriand shown lounging on the B306 chaise longue she designed with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in 1928, image from the Design Museum London; 2 Perriand with Le Corbusier (right, with glasses) and Pierre Jeanneret in their Paris atelier, image from the Design Museum London; 3 The B301 chair, designed by Charlotte Perriand, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret in 1928, image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 4 B302 swivel chair, by Perriand, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret, in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, photo by Anna Hoffman; 5 Maxell "Blown Away" ad from the late 1970s, image from Corbustier.com; 6 Unupholstered view of the B306 chaise longue by Perriand, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret from 1928, in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, photo by Anna Hoffman; 7 Contemporary interior featuring the B306 lounger (notice the mix of old and new, with Louis XV-style chairs and a Frank Gehry Wiggle chair from 1972 in the background), photo by Eric Roth via CocoCozy; 8 Ranjana and Naeem Khan's living room, featuring the B306 lounger and Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs, photographed by Simon Upton for Elle Decor; 9 Pierre Jeanneret's "Scissor" chair (1949), at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, photo by Anna Hoffman; 10 Charlotte Perriand's low chair (1954), shown at her 1955 show at Tokyo's Takashimaya, now at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, photo by Anna Hoffman; 11 Perriand's chaise longue basculante made out of bamboo in Japan (1940), with her Banquette style Tokyo (1954) in the background, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, photo by Anna Hoffman; 12 Perriand's plywood Ombre chair (1954) and metal "Air France" table (1953), the latter of which was made in Jean Prouvé's studio, both shown at Takashimaya in 1955 and now at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, photo by Anna Hoffman; 13 Nuage ash and aluminum shelves (1954), shown at Takashimaya in 1955, now at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, photo by Anna Hoffman.

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