Charlotte Perriand’s utilitarian beauty


One of the most influential furniture designers of the early modern movement, Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) introduced the ‘machine age’ aesthetic to interiors in the steel, aluminium and glass furniture she created at Le Corbusier’s architectural studio in the late 1920s and 1930s. She then continued to experiment with different materials; developing functional furniture for the masses.

When the 24 year old Charlotte Perriand strode into Le Corbusier’s studio at 35 rue de Sèvres, Paris in 1927, and asked him to hire her as a furniture designer, his response was short; “We don’t embroider cushions here,” he replied and showed her the door. A few months later Le Corbusier apologised. After being taken by his cousin Pierre Jeanneret to see the glacial Bar sous le Toît; a rooftop bar that Perriand had created in glass, steel and aluminium, for the Salon D’Automne exhibition in Paris, Le Corbusier invited her to join his studio.

During her time at the studio, Perriand found herself wrapping her legs in newspaper during the winter in a desperate attempt to stay warm. She also forged friendships with the gifted young architects and designers from all over the world who, like her had jumped at the chance to work for Le Corbusier as an unpaid or, if they were very lucky, poorly paid assistants. Together with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Perriand developed a series of tubular steel chairs, which were then – and are still today – hailed as icons of the machine age.

Those chairs are still her best known work, yet Perriand remained at Le Corbusier’s studio for over a decade and went on to collaborate with the cubist artist Fernand Léger and furniture designer Jean Prouvé. She remained an influential figure in the modern movement until her death in 1999, when she was acclaimed as one of the very few women to have succeeded in that male domain.

Early Career

Born in 1903, Perriand divided her childhood between Paris, where her father worked as a tailor and her mother as an haute couture seamstress, and her grandparents’ home in the mountainous rural region of Savoie. In 1920, she enrolled as a student at the Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs and studied there for five years. Frustrated by the craft-based approach and Beaux-Arts style championed by the school, Perriand searched for inspiration in the machine aesthetic of the motor cars and bicycles she saw on the streets of Paris.

Charlotte Perriand, Bar sous le Toît

Charlotte Perriand, Bar sous le Toît

A year after graduation, Perriand married and moved into a rented garret with her husband on Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris. After gutting the apartment, she transformed the largest room into a metal and glass bar, rather than a conventional salon. Determined to avoid working for one of the artisanal furniture manufacturers on Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but despairing of finding a more empathetic way of earning a living in furniture design, Perriand considered studying agriculture, until a friend suggested that she read two books by Le Corbusier; 'Vers une Architecture' (1923) and 'L’Art Décoratif d’Aujourd’hui' (1925). Inspired, Perriand inveigled a meeting with Le Corbusier to persuade him to hire her. Once employed at the rue de Sèvres studio, Perriand refined the machine age aesthetic of her Bar sous le Toît into furniture.

Le Corbusier Years

Before Perriand’s arrival, Le Corbusier had furnished his exhibition sets and buildings with carefully selected ready-made furniture, such as the simple bentwood chairs manufactured by the Austrian company Thonet, and compact versions of the club chairs made by Maple & Co. of London. He had however, specified exactly what he expected from furniture in 'L’Art Décoratif d’aujourd’hui', by identifying three key furniture types: ‘besoins-types’ or type-needs; ‘meubles-types’ or type-furniture; and ‘objets-membres humains’ or human-limb objects. He defined the latter as ‘Extensions of our limbs and adapted to human functions that are type-needs and type-functions, therefore type-objects and type-furniture. The human-limb object is a docile servant. A good servant is discreet and self-effacing in order to leave his master free. Certainly, works of art are tools, beautiful tools. And long live the good taste manifested by choice, subtlety, proportion, and harmony.’

Charlotte Perriand, LC7 Chair

Charlotte Perriand, LC7 Chair

Perriand proceeded to put Le Corbusier’s principles into practice by developing three chairs with chromium-plated tubular steel bases for two of his 1928 projects: Maison La Roche, a house he was designing in Paris, and a pavilion for his US clients Henry and Barbara Church in the garden of their home outside the city. At Le Corbusier’s request, one chair was designed ‘for conversation’, this was the B301 sling back chair; another ‘for relaxation’, the square-shaped and chunkily upholstered LC2 Grand Confort; and a third for sleeping, the elegant B306 chaise longue recliner inspired by the sensual curves of 18th century French day-beds. Perriand posed for the publicity shots of the chaise longue with crossed legs, wearing a skirt, short for its time and a necklace made from industrial ball bearings.

Working with Le Corbusier instilled a strict discipline into Perriand as a designer. ‘The smallest pencil stroke had to have a point,’ she later recalled, ‘to fulfil a need, or respond to a gesture or posture, and to be achieved at mass-production prices.’ To that end she attempted to persuade the French company Peugeot to adapt the steel tubing used in its bicycles for furniture. When Peugeot declined, Thonet, the manufacturer of Le Corbusier’s favourite bentwood chairs, was persuaded to produce a series of pieces for the 1929 Paris Salon d’Automne.

Exhibited as ‘Equipment for the Home’, the 1929 Salon d’Automne installation comprised of a model apartment considered a vision of deluxe modernity. The glass floor was lit from beneath to refract light on to the glass ceiling. All the chairs were made from metal bases with leather or canvas upholstery, and a glass-topped table tube d’avion was supported by a section of bi-plane wing stays. Perriand also devised a series of light, portable screens which fulfilled the dual function of dividing the space, and providing storage. Homely touches were added, such as an animal fur draped across the bed and a free-standing shower.

In 1930 Perriand’s marriage ended, and she moved to the another attic, this time in the Montparnasse district of Paris, where she would climb out of her toilet window to do gymnastics on the rooftop. Accompanied by friends and colleagues from Le Corbusier’s studio, she made trips to the country to ski, climb, swim and hike, and also travelled to Moscow and Athens for Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) conferences of fellow modernists. During this decade, Perriand developed furniture and fittings for a succession of Le Corbusier’s architectural projects including the Pavilion Suisse student lodgings at Cité Universitaire, the Salvation Army headquarters in Paris as well as his own apartment at the top of a building on rue Nungesser-et-Coli.

Charlotte Perriand, B306 Chaise Lounge

Charlotte Perriand, B306 Chaise Lounge

Perriand’s work continued to evolve and by the mid-1930s she was experimenting with rustic materials, such as wood and cane, inspired by the vernacular furniture of Savoie. By then, such materials seemed as outlandish and as radical as her early preference for glass and metal, but Perriand was convinced that they would enable her to realise the goal of developing affordable, functional and appealing mass-manufactured furniture for the people.

Later Career

In 1937, Perriand left Le Corbusier’s studio to collaborate with Fernand Léger on a stand at the 1937 Paris Exposition and later to work on a ski resort in Savoie. When World War II began, she returned to Paris to design prefabricated aluminium buildings with Pierre Jeanneret and Jean Prouvé until, in 1940, a friend from the rue de Sèvres studio arranged for her to travel to Japan as an official advisor on industrial design to the Ministry for Trade and Industry. Whilst in Japan, Perriand advised the government on how to raise standards of design in Japanese industry in order to develop products for export to the West. When Japan joined the war as a German ally, she tried to return to France though due to the naval blockade, she found herself trapped in Vietnam from 1942 until 1946. During this time, Perriand studied local techniques of woodwork and weaving. She also married her second husband, Jacques Martin, and gave birth to their daughter, Pernette.

Charlotte Perriand, Nuage Cabinet

Charlotte Perriand, Nuage Cabinet

On her return to France, Perriand revived her career. Her first project was a ski resort, and in 1947 she worked with Fernand Léger on a hospital and then with Le Corbusier on his 'Unité d’Habitation' apartment building in Marseille. Perriand’s experiences in Japan and Vietnam continued to influence her work, which combined many of the functional elements of Japanese interiors, such as sliding screens to redefine particular spaces, with the Indochinese finesse in working with natural materials, such as wood and bamboo. These themes recurred for the rest of her career in projects such as her Méribel ski resort and the League of Nations building in Geneva, the remodelling of Air France’s offices in London, Paris and Tokyo, and a continuing collaboration with Jean Prouvé.

Active though Perriand continued to be, she was less visible as an independent designer than as part of Le Corbusier’s studio. Yet towards the end of her life, her reputation was revived after the 1985 retrospective at the Musée des Arts-Décoratifs in Paris, and the 1998 exhibition at the Design Museum. ‘The most important thing to realise is that what drives the modern movement is a spirit of enquiry, it’s a process of analysis and not a style,’ stated Charlotte Perriand in one of her last interviews. ‘We worked with ideals.’

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