Charlotte Perriand: the design visionary who survived Le Corbusier’s putdowns | Art and design

From saw-toothed ski resorts to radical recliners, her bold creations caused a sensation. But Le Corbusier took the credit for some of her finest work. Now Charlotte Perriand is finally getting her due

In 1927, a young Parisian designer named Charlotte Perriand applied to work in the hallowed studio of the great architect Le Corbusier. The response she received was curt. “We don’t embroider cushions here,” Perriand was told. What part, after all, could this 24-year-old female furniture designer possibly play in Le Corbusier’s high-minded plan to revolutionise the modern world?

Yet one month later, at the annual Salon d’Automne, the grandmaster found himself at Perriand’s Bar Sous le Toit, or Bar Under the Roof, which re-created a section of her own apartment. Le Corbusier was spellbound; this was the intoxicating hymn to the machine age he had been dreaming of. Nickel-plated copper stools were clustered around an anodised aluminium cocktail bar, while a chrome-plated table nestled beside a leather banquette and a built-in gramophone cabinet.

Such riches – yet all cleverly designed to fit into Perriand’s small attic. It caused a sensation. As Perriand later recalled: “The upright Salon hadn’t expected its galleries to bubble with such brazen youth.” Corbusier hired her on the spot.

Twenty years after her death, Perriand’s brazen, maverick, youthful spirit is once again thrilling Paris, as an epic exhibition of her life and work opens at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. There are rooms kitted out with trapeze bars, a metallic alpine cabin that looks more like a lunar landing module and chairs in zinging colours that could be straight from the Milan furniture fair. We think of 1920s modernism as a sober, static black-and-white affair, depicted in grainy archive photographs. But this shows Perriand’s world to be as bright as a rainbow and alive with ideas.

In one room, a glossy-brown PVC curtain hangs in a cool, blue-tiled bathroom, its slinky folds dangling next to a futuristic aluminium shower capsule that looks as if it could transport bathers to another dimension. Across a chrome-trimmed cabinet is the living area, where a rippling-green glass dining table is surrounded by chairs in mustard yellow and cobalt-blue leather. Beside this is a compact kitchen organised with the precision of an operating theatre.

This radical domestic visionappeared in the 1929 Salon d’Automne, two years after Perriand’s attic bar made such an impact. However, the new creation was credited to the studio of Le Corbusier. It was produced to spearhead the arrival of his “Equipment for Living”, which was intended to replace all traditional home furnishings from then on. Many of the pieces have become 20th-century classics: the cube-shaped Grand Confort armchair, the pony-skin chaise longue (a “machine for relaxing”), the leather swivel chair. They were branded with the LC Collection moniker, but their true author was Perriand, who had been tasked with designing the furniture, given that Le Corbusier had no time for such details. He dismissed them as “le blah, blah, blah”.

As Perriand said in 1984: “I think the reason Le Corbusier took me on was because he thought I could carry through ideas. I was familiar with current technology, I knew how to use it and, what is more, I had ideas about the uses it could be put to.” The new exhibition shines a welcome spotlight on the woman who devised the furniture and much more, bringing her out from behind the plumped pillows to show her as a pioneering creator of the modern world in her own right.

An athletic figure with a close-cropped bob and a penchant for doing calisthenics outdoors, Perriand embodied l’esprit nouveau. She was often pictured wearing a homemade ball-bearing necklace, giving her the look of a lithe component plucked from a finely tuned machine. A wall-sized photograph in the lobby shows her standing topless in the Alps, back to the camera, arms raised. She seems to be giving a big two fingers up to the overblown glass shells Frank Gehry created for the Fondation and the design patriarchy in general. It is a taste of the mischievous spirit that runs through all four floors of the exhibition, charting her seven decades at the forefront of furniture, photography and architecture – from her 1920s interiors to her vast ski resort masterplans, as well as a tea house she built for Unesco in 1993 at the age of 90.

Enjoying the ample budget the LVMH coffers provided, the show features a number of precisely reconstructed interiors, inviting visitors to loll on loungers and swivel in replica chairs, immersing themselves in Perriand’s materially rich universe. One of the most striking re-creations is her House for a Young Man, built for the Brussels International Exposition in 1935.

An arena for exercising body and mind, it features pull-up rings and a trapeze bar on one side; on the other side of a netting partition, there is a study area where objets trouvés decorate shelves and a rustic rattan chair sits beside a sharp modern desk. For Perriand, there was no prescribed method or style: neither metal nor wood, industry nor craft should dominate, she said, because “we use each in its practical place”.

There is an increasingly organic, sensuous feeling to her designs as time goes on, an evolution accompanied in the exhibition by large prints of her black-and-white photographs of beach finds, tree stumps and animal bones. She would comb the beaches of Normandy with close friend Fernand Léger (whose huge paintings dot the show) and lover Pierre Jeanneret (Corbusier’s cousin), collecting “pebbles, bits of shoes, lumps of wood riddled with holes, horsehair brushes – all smoothed and ennobled by the sea … We called it our art brut.”

There are echoes of driftwood in the curvaceous wooden tables she made for herself and friends, while a later coffee table takes the form of a chunk of raw marble, as if freshly hewn from a quarry.

I do not think it would be interesting, wrote Corbusier, now you’re a mother, to oblige you to be present in the atelier

This coffee table was made during her time in Japan, following the country’s invitation to travel there in 1940 and advise on how traditional Japanese crafts could be improved for export. It seems as if Japanese craftsmanship had a bigger effect on her than she had on it. The show features a version of her famous chaise longue remade in bamboo, while the organisational principle of tatami mats would go on to influence her approach to modular interiors. A highlight from a later trip to Japan is Perriand’s wonderful double recliner, upholstered in bright red and purple fabric, on which a supine couple can face each other, legs in the air. Sadly, this is a one-off, remade for the exhibition.

An enthusiastic communist, Perriand became increasingly radical in the 1930s and 40s. On her return to France after the war, she was determined to turn her hand to low-cost furniture for mass production. She again approached Le Corbusier, who was working on the Unité d’Habitation housing project in Marseille, and the response was just as patronising as before.

“I do not think it would be interesting, now that you’re a mother … to oblige you to be present in the atelier,” he wrote. “On the other hand, I would be very happy if you could contribute to the practical structural aspects of the settings which are within your domain, that is to say the knack of a practical woman, talented and kind at the same time.” He would ultimately have Perriand develop the compact modular kitchens for the acclaimed Marseille project – and claim sole authorship of the result.

But the show makes it clear she didn’t need the helping hand of Le Corbusier to excel. One room is devoted to Les Arcs, the 1960s ski resort masterplanned by a group of architects under the leadership of Perriand, by then in her 60s. While a previous plan had proposed a number of towers, her idea was to nestle the buildings in the folds of the mountain, arranging the apartments in a series of staggered terraces cascading down the hillside, making them almost invisible after snowfall.

The buildings are perfectly tuned to their environment. To the south, the setback of the levels provides every dwelling with a generous terrace to catch the sun, while to the north the sloping facade protects the apartments from the snow. Despite accommodating more than 1,000 residents, the complex didn’t require lifts, and it adapted to the hillside contours with minimum impact on the site. A streamlined bathroom pod in the exhibition shows the attention lavished on every detail and her early embrace of prefabrication.

But, despite her best efforts to engage with industrial production, none of Perriand’s designs ever made it to the affordable mass market. She had hoped her chaise longue, with its curved tubular steel frame, would go down this route, but discussions with a manufacturer came to nothing. “Our attempts at talks with the Peugeot bicycle company resulted in half an hour of total incomprehension,” she recalled.

Only 170 were sold in the first decade. Today, reproduced by Cassina under licence from Fondation Le Corbusier, the celebrated recliner retails in design boutiques for more than £4,000. Not quite the egalitarian equipment for living this card-carrying communist would have imagined.

• Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World is at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, until 24 February.

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Post time: Oct-12-2019