05 March 2013

Charlotte Perriand: Beauty In Use

"Lenin is seated at the Rotonde on a cane chair; he has paid twenty centimes for his coffee, with a tip of one sou.  He has drunk out of a small white processional cup.  He is wearing a bowler hat and a smooth white collar.  He has been writing for several hours on sheets of typing paper.  His inkpot is smooth and round, made of bottle glass." *  -  (If you skimmed this paragraph, go back and read it again, slowly.)

Who writes this stuff, I asked myself irritably as I turned the pages to check the footnote.  Second rate historical fiction?  Over digested creative writing assignment? Highly regarded manifesto of modern design?  Yes, it's  Charles Edouard Jeanneret, the man who also had the poor taste to reject Charlotte Perriand when she applied to worked in his atelier in 1927, dismissing her with the comment "we don't embroider cushions here."
Undaunted by his condescension, Perriand renovated her Saint-Sulpice,  apartment into a design studio of her vision of modern architecture and design.    That's Perriand at left in her  'bar under the roof,' that became famous as Perriand's Mobilier Metallique.  Her solutions to the small spaces  of modern urban living are ours, now. She mirrored the  surfaces on furniture and walls,  enlraging them visually.   She designed tables and chairs that functioned as modular furniture.   The next year, dazzled by her virtuoso use of chrome, glass, and aluminum, Pierre Jeanerret persuaded his cousin to think again and a collaboration began,  one that allows lazy historians to minimize Charlotte Perriand's achievements to this day. 
Today, Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) is remembered for her decade long collaboration with Le Corbusier (the name Charles Jeanneret made up to differentiate himself from his talented relatives, including his cousin Pierre Jeanneret who persuaded him to take another look at Perriand's work).  More significant, I think was her encounter with  yo no bi, a concept from Japan that means "beauty is manifested in use."

Perriand met Junzo Sakakura, the Japanese ambassador to France, like her also an architect when he designed the Japanese pavilion for the 1937 Paris World's Fair.  Although he modeled it on the Katsura Palace, he used the materials of 1920s modernist design, thin steel and sheets of glass, achieving a cross-cultural idea of transparency and simplicity.  The French liked it very much.
Sakaura arranged an invitation from the Japanese Ministry of Commerce for his friend to visit Japan.  You may wonder why Perriand wanted to  leave home for a country halfway around the world that was obviously preparing for war, but she embarked from Marseilles by boat for Tokyo the day after Nazi soldiers marched into Paris.  
While in Tokyo, Perriand lived at the Imperial Hotel,  designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1922..   Seeing traditional Japanese crafts and learning vernacular techniques for weaving furniture took Perriand out of the city The experiences resulted in  Selection, Tradition, Creation, the exhibition she  developed for the Takashimaya  department store chain, combining furniture designed by Perriand and constructed in Japanese workshops with  traditional ceramics and lacquer work.  Perriand may have been inspired by her former teacher Maurice Dufrene, who directed  a design workshop La Maitrise for galreies lafayette in Paris.  
Perriand was deported  as an enemy alien in December, 1942, and spent the rest of World War II in exile in French Indochina.

 In her designs, Perriand embodied the harmony that comes from cohesion between internal and external spaces that is the aesthetic ideal  in Japanese architecture.     It must count as a twist of fate that Perriand's stackable chairs, known as the Perriand are often thought of as Japanese.   another similarity betwwen France and Japan: women were not granted the right to vote until 1946.  Perriand's real designs are, ultimately, more persuasive than Le Corbusier's imaginings.  Equally, we should be undaunted by attempts to write women out of design history, another feat of imagination.  As for Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, Leger, and the others,  Charlotte Perriand outlived and outworked them all. 

Charlotte Perriand et le Japon is an exhibition that originated at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, Japan in 2012 and is on view at Musee d'Art Moderne de Saint-Etienne Metropole. Saint-Priest-Jarez, France from February 23 to May 26, 2013.

* excerpt from L'Art decoratif aujourd'hui (The Decorative Arts Today) by Le Corbusier, translated from the French by james I Dunnett, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press: 1987.

1. unidentified photographer - Le Corbusier & Charlotte Perriand, 1939, Fondation le Corbusier, Paris.
2. Charlotte Perriand - Self-portrait In Her Studio, 1927, ADAGP, Paris.
3. Charlotte Perriand - ash bench for Etienne Sicard residence in Tokyo, 1941, Charlotte Perriand Archive, Paris.
4. Charlotte Perriand - modular furniture, no date given, Musee des Arts decoratifs, Paris.


willc said...

Thanks for the focus on Charlotte Perriand, and for your spot-on observation that she outlived and outworked some of France's most petrifyingly arrogant male theorists of Modernism. That being said, I was inspired to go look at her "Perriand stacking chairs."
Beautifully Modern they are indeed, but were they originally supplied with supplementary seat cushions over the leather slings?
A quick search online suggest not, and here is a photo that prompts me to wonder:
Unless there was a secondary cushion I'm not sure that anyone could sit in them for more than five minutes before that front seat rail began to torture the upper leg tendons behind the knees. In other words, great sculpture, painful chair.
Many Modernist designers were quick to claim functionality as a primary consideration in their reductive designs. And from the number of examples now offered for sale by Mid-Century Design dealers, the Perriand stacking chair obviously sold well.
But if function was her prime consideration in this design, perhaps it was the notorious air terminal manager's desired function of preventing people from sitting in waiting rooms for long periods when they might otherwise be up and spending money in the coffee lounges and gift shops while waiting for their planes.

Gerry Snape said...

great post ! have loved her work.boa

Jane said...

Willc, quite right you are. There are all kinds of chair designs but many of them are uncomfortable. Recently I've noticed that, as old theaters and concert halls are renovated, the seating is one of most contentious issues.
Risking an over-generalization here, when I first read about Perriand being brushed off by Le Corbusier I thought of the architect Lily Reich and Mies van der Rohe, but Mies didn't just brush women off, he actively sabotaged their careers.
Thanks for the info. too!

Jane said...

Welcome, Gerry. I agree completely. Perriand's work deserves all the attention we can give it.