Celebrated for her unique skill in bridging function with art, architect and designer Charlotte Perriand’s furniture designs continue to command high prices—and acclaim—at auction today.
For example, the chaise longue she designed in 1928 with Le Corbusier—when she was only 24 years old—features just two pieces: the chaise itself and its lacquered sheet-metal base. Removing the chaise from its base creates a new type of seating, lower to the floor but still functional.
Similarly, her iconic tripod stools, standing just 15 inches tall—first designed in 1950 and featuring, depending on the design, ash or pine—could double as a plant stand. They were extremely popular during the midcentury-modern era and remain so today.
Who Was Charlotte Perriand?
Born in Paris in 1903, Perriand died in the same city at the age of 96, in 1999. She studied at L’Ecole de l’Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs (which translates to School of the Central Union of Decorative Arts) and spent nearly all of her life in Paris, France, enthralled by the glitzy capital city. That said, some of her designs—particularly choices in material—were inspired by trips she took to Savoie to see her grandparents.
In recent years, Perriand’s pieces have been the subject of well-watched auctions, including an armoire sold for $50,000 this past summer by Phillips, bumping shoulders with 120 other furnishings, including those by Hans J. Wegner and George Nakashima, in the same auction. The projected estimate was $40,000 to $60,000.
One unique aspect of her career is that she didn’t focus on just one utilitarian form of furnishings, such as chairs or lighting. Instead, she designed everything from chairs to stools, sconces to cabinets, and dining sets, too. Perriand even designed a daybed commissioned by La Cochette Les Arcs, a hotel in Savoie, France. This was between 1967 and 1982, preceded by another hotel— Méribel, also in the French Alps—hiring her to devise interior furnishings.
Studying under Art Deco artisan Henri Rapin at L’Ecole de L’Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs, coupled with lectures by decorative artist Maurice Dufrêne, Perriand quickly developed a signature style folding in these influences. In fact, Dufrêne’s role as proprietor of a studio workshop at France’s largest department store (Galeries Lafayettes) led to one of her first shows: her wall hangings being prominently displayed at Galeries Layfayettes.
Then, between 1927 and 1937 she worked in Le Corbusier’s studio, tasked with creating the brand’s interiors. She chose a mix of metals for bases, often paired with leather seating. It’s thought that the unveiling of her Bar Sous Le Toit (essentially a built-in bar affixed to a wall and born out of glass, aluminum and chrome) at the 1927 Salon l’Automne led to this partnership, although she had stated many, many times that her career goal was to bring her designs to Le Corbusier.
One of her first projects for Le Corbusier concerned chairs, assigning one for each task: chatting/conversation (the B301 sling-back style chair) relaxing/reclining (cube-shaped Grand Confort) and sleeping (the famous chaise longue mentioned above).
Like all designers, the itch to go out on her own was something she couldn’t ignore, and in the late 1930s she left Le Corbusier. Among her later partnerships was with Jean Prouvé, known for works heavy on metal, a skill he honed as a metal worker and took with him to his self-taught career as a designer.
Approaching her Craft
Perriand’s ability to be a keen observer served her well and was at the root of her design process. She was famous for traveling solo—during an era when women often did not do so—to simply study and be with her surroundings, as a pre-empt for creating her designs inspired by the regions she visited. This mantra applied whether she was on commission (hired to create specific designs) or not.
Perriand was also deeply influenced by the Machine Age (early- to mid-20th century), in which shops in and around her native Paris were turning to metal in order to craft lasting objects, including automobiles. She sought out ways to rely upon metal in her designs to withstand wear and tear, although at a much smaller scale.
The Japan Period
When the Germans descended upon France in 1940, Perriand took the opportunity to relocate to Japan for six years under official capacity as an industrial designer with the Ministry for Trade and Industry. Her designs post-late 1940s are noted for their nods to Eastern design. Unfortunately, she was later captured while traveling through Vietnam and forced into exile, but her commitment to being a lifelong student of design did not waver. During this time, despite a lack of access to the materials she typically designed with, and the absence of a studio, she took up woodworking and weaving.
It was also in Vietnam where her professional life took a personal detour when she met her second husband, Jacques Martin, and gave birth to their daughter, Pernette. Perriand’s first marriage (to Percy Kilner Scholefield) ended in 1930 after just four years of marriage.
While her portfolio includes many furnishings created for private residences, during the 1960s Perriand evolved to work on commission for a few corporations. Air France is one of those companies. Like the aforementioned ski resorts, where Perriand was tasked to consider entire guest rooms as a whole, and not just one piece of furniture, the airline’s offices wished for a blend of comfy and corporate. They turned to Perriand to design their interior furnishings in Paris, Tokyo and London. Another of Perriand’s commercial projects was the United Nations’ League of Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland.
During her 80s a retrospective of Perriand’s work debuted at Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a fitting bookend to her prolific, wildly imaginative life as an industrial designer while also honoring her roots in the City of Lights. This was in 1985, followed by a published autobiography titled Une Vie de Création, a book still consulted today, along with numerous others authored by experts in furniture design who were influenced by Perriand.
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