As the kickoff to a series of posts highlighting the work of female designers, we're taking a look at the life and work of Charlotte Perriand, a 20th century French designer whose creations, while unmistakably minimal, also have a bit of a rustic/industrial edge. Perriand's spare aesthtic and thoughtful use of materials still feels very modern, so it's no surprise that her designs are enjoying a bit of a renaissance. If you haven't heard of her, you've definitely seen her work.
Charlotte Perriand was born in Paris in 1903. She showed a talent for design from a young age, and at 17 she enrolled in the Ecole de L'Union Centrale de Arts Decoratifs, where she studied furniture design for five years.
In 1927, she applied for a job at the firm of Le Corbusier, who turned her down with the words "We don't embroider cushions here." Undeterred by his rudeness, she invited him to an exhibition of her designs later that year. The Bar Sous le Toit, or bar in the attic, was a recreation of a design she had created for her own apartment. Critics loved it, and Le Corbusier was impressed enough to offer her a job.
At Le Corbusier's firm, Perriand was put in charge of furniture and interior fittings. She worked with him for 10 years, creating, along with Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, some of the most famous furniture designs of the 20th century.
From 1937 to 1940, she worked with French designer Jean Prouvé, designing military barracks and furnishings for temporary housing. When France surrendered in 1940, the team disbanded, but Perriand would work with Prouvé again many years later, after the war.
In 1940 she accepted an invitation to come to Japan to work with their Department of Trade Promotion, whose goal it was to increase the export of Japanese products to the West. She stayed in Japan for three years, and, unable to return to Paris, spent another three years in Vietnam. The Eastern designs that she was exposed to there had a huge influence on her career, leading her to bring warmer, more natural materials into her later designs.
Returning to Paris, Perriand continued to work with other designers, including Le Corbusier and Prouvé, and also developed plenty of projects on her own. She designed commercial interiors for Air France, a kitchen prototype for Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation apartment building, and several ski resorts, including one at Les Arcs, for which she created her tubular steel and leather sling chair, arguably her most famous design.
Charlotte Perriand may not be as well-known as the male designers with whom she collaborated, but her body of work is equally as impressive. In a career spanning three-quarters of a century, she designed buildings, furniture, interiors, and decorative objects, and created projects in Brazil, Congo, England, France, Japan, French New Guinea, Switzerland, and Vietnam. As interest in midcentury design expands beyond old standbys like Alvar Aalto and the Eamses, several of her designs have been re-issued — and her work is starting to get the attention it so richly deserves.
For further reading:
• Charlotte Perriand at the Encyclopedia Britannica