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The French designer and architect Charlotte Perriand argued passionately for modernism and put the art of living in bare, plain spaces to the test. A documentary on Arte hears from the designer herself and outlines her biography – her collaboration with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, her exploration of Japanese culture, and her projects such as the Les Arcs winter sports resort.

By Thomas Wagner.

French designer and architect Charlotte Perriand left her mark on 20th century design and society
French designer and architect Charlotte Perriand left her mark on 20th century design and society. © AChP. Photo: ARTE France

“Having come to fame through her collaboration with the star architect Le Corbusier, she stood for her own avant-garde and created revolutionary pieces of furniture during her lifetime that have long enjoyed cult status.” What sounds like a collection of clichés at the start of the film by Stéphane Ghez gives way to a portrait of a fascinating champion of modernism who loved life. Charlotte Perriand (1903 to 1999) sits in her chalet in the drifting snow, polishes her autobiography and recounts how “everything got going”. After having an appendectomy as a ten-year-old, she discovered how much the bare, whitewashed room in the children’s hospital suited her. “Back at home, the jumble of furniture and bits and pieces was so abhorrent to me that I burst out crying. The plain sparseness of the hospital suited me much more. This is where I unknowingly discovered emptiness. It is all-powerful because it can contain everything.”

The bare hospital room and the possibilities that arise in and out of emptiness are echoed with subtle irony by Robert Musil in The Man without Qualities, as he writes of Ulrich’s indecision of how he should decorate his home, and states about the tabula rasa of modernism: “What should he choose? Modern man is born in a hospital and dies in a hospital, so he should make his home like a clinic. So claimed a leading architect of the moment; and another reformer of interior decoration advocated movable partitions in homes instead of fixed walls so that people would learn to trust their housemates instead of shutting themselves off from one another.” These two aspects of rooms – as clean as a clinic and with movable walls – were also to feature on Perriand’s agenda.

Mademoiselle, we don’t embroider cushions here

Her stay in Japan for several years was a culture shock for Charlotte Perriand, but also a source of new inspiration.
Her stay in Japan for several years was a culture shock for Charlotte Perriand, but also a source of new inspiration. © AChP. Photo: ARTE France

She recalls how in 1927 at the age of just 24 she marched into the studio of Le Corbusier in Paris and showed the master architect her designs in order to present herself as an architect. He looked at everything and then said, “Mademoiselle, we don’t embroider cushions here.” After the Salon d’Automne at the Grand Palais in Paris, where she exhibited her “Bar under the roof”, Le Corbusier revised his verdict and gave the young woman a job. “I was reborn in this studio, truly,” she says. She would stay with Le Corbusier’s studio for ten years, before pursuing her own political and artistic path.

The young woman bathed confidently in the sparkling energy of the “années vingt”, learned the Charleston, admired Josephine Baker, wore her hair cropped short and had a necklace made of chrome-plated balls, which she called her “ball bearings” – a provocation of industrial aesthetics. Modernism was gathering momentum. In her apartment, a car headlamp hung above her extending table made of materials used in automotive production. The direction was clear: we need to get away from the classical parlour.

Hearing Charlotte Perriand talk about her life herself throughout the documentary makes the film particularly fascinating. The many historical black-and-white pictures, varied archive materials and some unreleased sound recordings all help to not only create a diary of memories, but also to tie Perriand’s journey to historic events.

Furniture for the unité d’habitation

In Le Corbusier’s studio, Charlotte initially took on the task of developing the interior design for the Villa Savoye in 1928. She discovered the reinforced concrete and Le Corbusier’s vision of a unité d’habitation. In a plain white box, the furnishings are also pared down to the essentials. As she looked for something suitable for the novel spaces, Le Corbusier gave her sketches of nine seating or sleeping options – and she got to work. Her most important tool was a mannequin. “Nothing”, she says, “is more difficult than a seat. Every line has to mean something: a form, a function, a material, a price!” When all that was defined, there was another dimension to consider: the relationship between object and person.

Gradually and in varying degrees of collaboration with Le Corbusier and his studio director and cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, she created chairs, armchairs and sofas that remain famous to this day, including the remarkable chaise longue (B306). The trio presented the tubular steel furniture in 1929 at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. Charlotte recalls, “It was said that we were making hospital furniture.” She adds with a smile, “We beheaded Louis XVI but we still cheerfully produced dining rooms in the style of Henry IV or bedrooms à la Marie Antoinette.”

The break becomes particularly clear in such places, where modern architecture and interior design had continued to follow tradition. The film provides a vivid overview of Perriand’s drivers and perspectives, her approaches, experiments and the stages of her creative development. As a whole, it is a successful and inspiring introduction to her work.

The embattled modernity

Charlotte Perriand was a tireless campaigner for modernity whose influence extends far beyond the world of design.
Charlotte Perriand was a tireless campaigner for modernity whose influence extends far beyond the world of design. © AChP. Photo: ARTE France

At the end of the twenties, modernism was hotly contested. Perriand was instrumental in founding the UAM, the Union des Artistes Modernes: “Without me,” she says confidently, “it wouldn’t have happened. I was always the one who fought.” But even for her, modernism was no longer the same after the stock market crash of 1929. Rather than looking to the factory, she now sought inspiration in nature, having been fascinated by the mountains of Savoy since she was a child. Together with Pierre Jeanneret (the two had fallen in love with each other, which hurt Le Corbusier and ultimately resulted in Perriand leaving the studio), she would travel from Paris to the coast of Normandy at weekends, collect stones, bones and all kinds of objects, and photograph them. She was friends with the painter Fernand Léger. “It was the epitome of art brut.” Consequently, her forms became more organic; she used natural materials and turned to handicraft.

In the 1930s, she engaged in politics, developed architectural basic modules with an area of just 14 square metres, campaigned for the democratisation of leisure time and devised construction kits for weekend cottages, a bivouac and the famous barrel-shaped hut for alpine sportspeople. At the 1937 world exhibition in Paris, the shadow of totalitarian architecture loomed. No longer tied to Le Corbusier’s studio, she eventually received an invitation to Japan. She left Paris two days before the German invasion. On arrival in Japan, she was fascinated by the traditional architecture and found a consistent form of standardisation in the dimensions of tatami mats. At the same time, Charlotte experienced a country in upheaval in Japan. Then the war closed in on her. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s entry into the war, she had to leave the country. She decided to go to Indochina and did not return to France until 1946. At the age of 40, she married a French naval officer in Hanoi and gave birth to her daughter, Pernette. In 1947, she began working on the interior furnishings of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse in Marseilles and pushed to liberate women – who were now in employment – from the prison of the kitchen. Drawing on her experience from the “unité d’habitation”, she also benefited from her philosophy of minimal dwelling when she was involved in designing hotels and apartments at the Les Arc winter sports resort in the French Alps at the end of the 1960s.

An ethics of the twenty-first century

At the end of the film, the woman who had championed the power of emptiness, women’s liberation, affordable living space, the leisure society and self-assembly furniture reflects on the ethics of the 21st century, which have become even more topical since the turn of the millennium: “We must not forget,” she says, “it is not about the object, it is about the person. It’s not about the building, it’s about the person inside. How will he live? The new technologies exceed our horizons, but they also open up bright prospects. On condition that we do not enslave ourselves. What I mean is: to live is to let live what is in us. We must never forget that.”

French designer and architect Charlotte Perriand left her mark on 20th century design and society
© AChP. Photo: ARTE France

Charlotte Perriand – Pioneer of Everyday Design

Directed by Stéphane Ghez
Documentary: 53 min.
France 2018

TV broadcast

Sunday, 21 November 2021, at 4.10 p.m.
Saturday, 11 December 2021, at 5.05 a.m.
Available online until 19 January 2022

Wathc the film in the ARTE-Mediatek

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