There is a famous image of Charlotte Perriand. Photographed in her Paris apartment in 1927, she looks 16 not 24. Her hair is cropped boyishly short, accentuating a pert, mischievous face. She wears a boldly geometric-patterned dress cut just below the knee. She is the epitome of the ‘new woman’ ‘ spirited, independent, liberated. But something else Perriand wears signifies that there is more going on here. This is one of the earliest photos where she poses in her famous ‘ball bearing’ necklace, in fact a simple row of large, chromed-steel balls that became a kind of signature for her in the late 1920s: “I called it my ball bearings ‘ a symbol and a provocation that marked my solidarity with the machine epoch of the 20th century.”
1927, the year of the photograph, was a watershed year for Perriand. Trained as a designer in the contemporary Parisian decorative style, subsequently known as Art Deco, that was to reach its apogée in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 ‘ Perriand received good grounding in the art of designing ‘ensembles’ or complete room settings. But by 1927 the richly-figured timbers and sumptuous effects of her room settings had given way to a completely new aesthetic.
Her radical ‘Bar in the Attic’, shown in the Salon d’Automne of that year, introduced hard edges, shiny reflective surfaces and the new furniture material ‘du jour’ ‘ tubular steel. There is no decoration, no colourful patterning, no ‘feminising’. In the space of a year Perriand had completely embraced modernity; from now on her work looked defiantly to the future, not the past, for inspiration. “Why this rupture’”, she remarked. “Probably because, since I express my own needs, I am conscious of and in synch with my times. They are mechanical: in the streets the beautiful cars wink at me, they are clean, shining. I adorn my neck with chromed-steel beads, my waist with a coat of mail, my studio with chromed steel. I wear my hair à la Josephine Baker.”
Not surprisingly, Perriand’s Bar attracted considerable attention, most importantly that of the avant-garde architect Le Corbusier who subsequently offered her a job. The association with Le Corbusier and his partner Pierre Jeanneret, though lasting only a few years, was to result in some of the most significant examples of modernist furniture in the 20th century ‘ Perriand’s tube-steel swivel dining chairs, the armchairs ‘Siège á dossier basculant’ and ‘Grand confort’ and the now iconic chaise longue. All were designed in 1928 and all remain in production today. Significantly, Perriand’s name was rarely associated with the three latter designs until recently. Today they are usually attributed as ‘Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, Perriand’ although it is generally acknowledged that Perriand’s participation in the collaboration was crucial to the final realisation of the designs.
All four chairs exploited the flexibility, strength and lightness of tubular steel and were included in the extraordinary installation by Perriand, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret at the 1929 Salon d’Automne. Titled ‘Equipment for a dwelling’ this model apartment acted as a kind of visual manifesto for the partnership’s fundamental ideas about domestic interiors ‘ functionalism, the elimination of unnecessary decoration, a rejection of historicism and the use of modern, industrial materials, in this case metal and glass.
Perriand’s passion for metal, one shared by a number of European designers in the 1920s, was expounded with some drama in an article, ‘Wood or metal”, published earlier in 1929: “Metal plays the same part in furniture as cement has done in architecture. It is a REVOLUTION. The FUTURE will favour materials which best solve the problems propounded by the ‘ NEW MAN the type of individual who keeps pace with scientific thought, who understands his age and lives it: The Aeroplane, the Ocean Liner and the Motor are at his service ”
However, such Utopian ideals were soon to be tempered by a more grounded vision of the future. The Wall Street crash of 1929 and the ensuing worldwide depression created new agendas for design, most importantly a reassessment of its role in bettering the lives of all human beings, not just those who could afford it! Perriand was profoundly affected by the wider social and political issues ushered in by the economic crisis of the 1930s. She supported both the Communist Party and France’s militant Popular Front and redirected her energies towards designing low-cost furniture for mass production. Modernity was no longer the preserve of the wealthy; its benefits had to be made accessible to all classes of society.
Throughout the remaining four or five decades of her long career Perriand was to stay true to these ideals. Her interest in vernacular craft traditions resulted in a number of designs adapting traditional craft techniques and materials, most notably a series of furniture for the Japanese government in 1941 and furniture inspired by the peasant vernacular of her beloved mountain region in Savoy. During the 1950s and 60s she collaborated on several projects with Jean Prouvé, with whom she shared a common interest in the creation of affordable, mass-produced furniture.
Perriand died in 1999, aged 96, having lived long enough to enjoy the well-overdue acknowledgment of her remarkable contribution to the history of 20th century design. The legacy of her work ‘ furniture, architecture, interior design, and her writings ‘ and the humanist philosophy that guided them, serve today as an important reminder of what truly ‘good’ and lasting design is all about.
This article was first published in more space.