From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Charlotte Perriand was broadcast on the 25th June 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier are titans of the modern movement but delve a little deeper and you find that many of their most famous designs were actually created by women. Lilly Reich was behind much of Mies’s furniture, and Charlotte Perriand behind all of Le Corbusier’s. Yet it’s only relatively recently that these women have become more widely known, recognised as pioneers, given they had no female role models when they started out.
Perriand is a captivating figure, with her aspiration to simplify and streamline the home not just for wealthy clients but for everyone. Born in Paris in 1903 and trained in interior and furniture design, her individuality was demonstrated in the renovation of her own apartment overlooking Saint Sulpice in the centre of Paris. Accessed through a sliding metal door, its open-plan space was dominated by a table modelled on an aeroplane wing. Other furniture was made from aluminium and nickel-plated copper, and showed how something cool and industrial could also look glamorous, much like her penchant for wearing a necklace made from ball-bearings. This was not a feminine space but a truly contemporary one. She replicated it at Paris’s most important annual design exhibition in 1927, naming it The Bar under the Roof, a play on the name of a fashionable cabaret club of the time, the Ox on the Roof. She was naturally drawn to the work of Le Corbusier and his suggestion that the house should be a machine for living in. But when she approached him for a job, he glanced at her portfolio and dismissed her with a patronising, ‘We don’t embroider cushions here’. And yet, just months later, he was so impressed by her display at the exhibition that he took her on. Within a few years Perriand had designed the tubular steel furniture that Le Corbusier was credited with for decades after. These include the Grand Confort armchair, with its separate seat, back and side cushions held firmly within a tubular steel frame, and the sinuous chaise longue that encapsulates the modern movement.
Ten years later, Perriand stepped away from Le Corbusier to work on new projects with metal designer Jean Prouvé and artist Fernand Léger but it was tough going. She leapt at the opportunity to travel to Japan, invited by the government to advise on how to market its goods to the West, but became trapped there by the war, first interned and then seeing it out in Vietnam, where she married a French official. It allowed her to hone her interest in Asian furniture, especially the tradition of sliding doors and the use of bamboo. When she returned, she worked again with Le Corbusier to design the ingenious kitchens for his ground-breaking apartment buildings. Her love of the Alps, where her grandparents had lived and where she often escaped to hike or ski, led her to work on projects like the new ski resort at Les Arcs in the 1960s. The apartments she designed were basic but filled with clever storage ideas and plenty of natural light. When she died in 1999, her legacy was greater than many realised. Like the Eames couple in America, she normalised fitted furniture. Her daughter recalls her dedication to detail and the hunger to learn different ways of making things, and her insistence to look around and absorb new ideas. Her general cheerfulness surely hid the disappointment she must have felt when others – men – took the credit. She’s now appreciated as one of the most influential designers of the twentieth century, a role model for women, certainly, but also for designers of every type. With thanks – or no thanks – to her modernist peers.