PRINT Summer 1999


AT NINETY-FIVE, Charlotte Perriand has found a rule to live by: “Cultivate happiness.” This self-conscious optimism has enabled her to play a crucial role in defining the modern spirit in twentieth-century design. Still at work in Paris, the city of her birth, she recently oversaw the installation of “Charlotte Perriand, Fernand Léger: une connivence,” a survey exhibition focusing on her collaborations with the painter that recently opened at the Musée National Fernand Léger in Biot.

One of the few women to have gained entry to the male-dominated world of avant-garde architecture, Perriand worked from 1927 to 1937 with Le Corbusier and architect Pierre Jeanneret in their studio at 35 rue de Sèvres in Paris. As head of the “furniture equipment” division, she produced objects that have become landmarks of twentieth-century design. It’s difficult to imagine a more mythical object of modernism than their tubular lounge chair of 1928–29.

Among the many projects the studio undertook were the complete furnishings for both the Villa Laroche in 1928 and the Villa Church the following year. Stimulated by the utopian belief that furniture should be inexpensive and accessible, they presented, at the Salon d’Automne of 1929, the “Equipment for living: cabinets, chairs, tables.” Their interest in the mechanics of daily life culminated in Perriand’s prototype of an integrated kitchen for Le Corbusier’s “Unité d’habitation” in Marseilles, in 1950.

It was at this moment that Perriand resumed her work with architect and designer Jean Prouvé. Having known one another for over a decade, the pair embarked on a series of important collaborations. Two of these projects were realized in Africa, where they designed the interiors and furniture for both the Air France building in Brazzaville in 1950 and the Hôtel de France in Conakry in 1953. Perriand’s work is marked by a stylistic diversity that feels oddly current. With the ubiquity of shelter magazines promoting once-utopian and populist design as the height of fashionable luxury, her objects are undergoing a belated revival.

Perriand has traveled widely, incorporating the lessons she learned abroad in her own work. From 1940 to 1946, her stay in Asia, especially Japan, became a major source of inspiration and played a crucial role in the development of her aesthetic—wood became her material of choice, and space was increasingly defined by the Japanese dynamics of “the void.” This sensitivity to “local conditions” also affected her work in Brazil, where she incorporated indigenous materials and vernacular approaches in her designs. Closer to home, she has sustained an interest in Alpine architecture and furniture design. This openness to the specifics of place, to other cultures, remains a signature asset.

I met Charlotte Perriand in April in her small top-floor studio in Paris, a space that satisfies her desire to be as close as possible to sky, landscape, and light. This feeling of transparency and ease is also reflected in her manner of speaking and dressing. On the day of our interview, she wore jeans, Nikes, and an oversized blue blouse. Open and generous, Perriand looks to the twenty-first century with high spirits.

Hendel Teicher

HENDEL TEICHER: You are about to have an exhibition devoted to your “affinity” with Fernand Léger. Can you tell me something about your relationship?

CHARLOTTE PERRIAND: I met Léger in 1930 at a reception at the German Embassy in Paris for a Bauhaus exhibition and the members of the Union des Artistes Modernes, which he belonged to, as did I. Apparently Léger was bored. I didn’t know him yet, but he seemed bored. It was fairly evident because his face was collapsing. I was with Pierre Jeanneret and some other friends and we decided to leave the dull reception and walk around Paris to find a bistro. That’s how it started. The “affinity” was that we both loved life—not always its representation, but what it really is to be alive. Léger, quite naturally, had that in him. I also had it because I loved the mountains, I loved country people. I was born in Paris but raised on my great uncle’s farm until the age of three. I loved the manure, the cows. Then we lost touch, but one day I moved from the place Saint-Sulpice to a little studio building on the boulevard Montparnasse. I was moving in with all my plates and cutlery, and Léger said, “What are you doing here?” and I said: “I’m moving in.” And it turned out the walls of my studio were also the walls of his.

HT: What luck!

CP: Wonderful luck. He said to me, “What a good idea! Now I can have my café au lait at your house.” Pierre Jeanneret came up there, too; a little later José Luis Sert and Mouncha came to live at my place until the war in Spain ended. Every day was marvelous; we got together at breakfast each morning, talked a bit, and afterward everyone went off to attend to their affairs. It was an absolutely rich period, a period of exchange, of course, of diverse encounters. Léger was an easel painter, but he dreamed only of walls. He said to Corbu, “Give me some walls.” But Corbu kept his walls for himself. Léger was curious about everything. There were several occasions when I asked him to participate in projects. He always said yes, whatever the difficulties. In other words, he was not a man of commerce; he was a man of conviction.

HT: You shared a certain utopia.

CP: Yes, you might say what is a utopia one day becomes a reality the next.

HT: These exchanges among similar but different professions have inspired and sustained you all these years . . .

CP: Diversity supports you, because you have exchanges with other points of view. It’s really a relationship with “the Other.” I was fortunate to have a wonderful team. It was the same with all the young people over at Le Corbusier’s: There were Japanese, Americans, British, Spanish, Yugoslavs, Hungarians. We all spoke the same language.

HT: To recall this period, in 1955, in Tokyo, you organized an exhibition called “Proposition d’une Synthèse des Arts [Proposal for a Synthesis of the Arts): Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, Charlotte Perriand.”

CP: It was a chance to show my furniture, and at the same time I invited Léger to show his ceramics, textiles, paintings, and Corbu his textiles and paintings.

HT: In this synthesis of arts, how do you define your role? Do you consider yourself an architect or a designer?

CP: I’m not an architect. In 1938, after spending ten years with Corbu, I could have said I was an “architect.” But when I came back from Japan in 1946, I would have had to pass before l’Ordre des Architectes—which is very academic—and I didn’t want to do that. I’m for teamwork. I’m very interested in the life in houses. Everything is created from within, if you will—needs, gestures, a harmony, a euphoric arrangement, if possible, in relation to an environment. In that respect, I side with architecture, I project myself outside, and I admit that there is a to and fro between the environment and the horizon. After all we are part of the universe. So perhaps, as Confucius said, I think, man is in the universe. That is, there are no barriers.

HT: Do you consider yourself a designer?

CP: I’m not that either (laughter). I don’t know. I’d say first of all that I’m nothing. For the following reason: I have never designed an object, a form, a piece of furniture that I didn’t need to relate to a whole. If you asked me today to design you a chair, I would say “To go where?” I have no imagination. I could do it in relation to my skeleton, but I still need to know how it fits into a whole. There is the purely functional side, if you will, and there is the functional side in relation to the human being; after all, design is about responding to the gestures of the human being. Then there is a side even beyond this, which has to do with a sort of harmony with oneself, with one’s environment; this kind of awareness affects everything. At that moment, it gives me imagination; otherwise, I don’t have any.

HT: In your autobiography [Charlotte Perriand, Une vie de Création (Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 1998)], you mention the importance of your stay in Japan.

CP: Simply put, when you never leave your own country, you reason within your country; you become the center of the universe. When you leave and go to the trouble to look, listen, understand—when you really start to listen—you discover that there are other ways of thinking. I found myself in a very traditional Japan, still under the influence of Zen Buddhism and the rule of emptiness. Emptiness is all-powerful because it can contain everything. In France, emptiness is a bit like poverty; as soon as there is a void, we have to fill it. It’s a totally different thing. So one is led to create different things. All in all, Japan is a very purist country; in that sense, it suited me well, it fit with the purism of Le Corbusier. I was in the midst of a traditional Japanese architecture that was marvelously contemporary in spirit.

HT: Japan was important for a lot of architects.

CP: We were all taken with it. Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut . . . I don’t know anyone who went there and remained indifferent. In Japan, you might say I totally “tatami-ed” myself. When I left a few years later, I went to Brazil to do a residency, and I told myself, good, I’ll bring my drawings from Japan; I didn’t want to wear myself out. But it didn’t work. It was there that Lucio Costa told me to go see Ouro Prêto, the baroque City of Gold, to go to the National Library, to look at volumes of the first missionaries’ drawings of the Indians—their tattoos, their tools, the plants, the fauna, and so on. That’s what I did. Now, Brazil is a baroque country. It’s racially mixed, alive, in motion. It liberated me. I could have become frozen, but I entered the fray. Today I realize that I could have gone to Timbuktu, and the same thing would have happened.

HT: Did the fact that you were a woman make you more receptive, more open to going abroad?

CP: That’s a question I am often asked. I find the problem of “being a woman” a bit unsettling, for the simple reason that I never asked myself the question. Perhaps it wasn’t an issue.

HT: Perhaps it wasn’t an issue at the time; however, today I would say that Charlotte Perriand is the woman who worked alongside remarkable men: Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Fernand Léger, Jean Prouvé . . .

CP: I never asked the question. I lived in symbiosis with those people, and they happened to be men. But I never said to myself that I was a woman among men. I had my work, I did it; I had my convictions, I stated them. That was it. Now from the men’s point of view, if they were asked the question, whether it posed problems for them, I doubt it. In any case, they had the delicacy not to tell me so.

HT: But you were exceptional as a woman surrounded by exceptional people. . .

CP: Now you’re pushing me up against a wall (laughter). There is one thing I never did, and that was flirt. That is, I didn’t “dabble,” I created and produced, and my job was important. There was mutual respect, mutual recognition. Even with my artisans, it worked out very well. Because I was receptive to techniques, I respected their skills. I used them to the best advantage, and I had dialogues with them. I did not get worked up about intellectualized ideas for which I had no formula.

HT: You listened to your artisans.

CP: Of course, it’s their métier! An idea is not really born until it is realized. Otherwise, it remains simply an idea.

HT: You are re-editioning the objects you created with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret.

CP: Through Cassina, which holds the rights. The company is well organized in terms of international distribution.

HT: Does the 1929 chaise longue make sense in 1999?

CP: As long as people use it. It has become a somewhat mythic object.

HT: And the chair with the swinging back?

CP: These pieces of furniture, in spite of everything, are elitist in a sense. Technically speaking, they involve a lot of welding and so on. As a result, they
cannot be inexpensive and at the same time made properly. There are terrible copies—the people who produce them are like gangsters, they profit from someone else’s name; they do whatever they please. They kill creativity because there are young people who could be making new things.

HT: These objects were revolutionary in the ’30s. Do they function that way today?

CP: It’s not about today that we need to be thinking; it’s about tomorrow. There is of course the need to make inexpensive products. New models have to be created for the masses. But I think there is also something beyond prêt-à-porter. Say we no longer use techniques like weaving because of the expense. So do we do without it definitively? Why? There’s no need. What is inexpensive because it is produced cheaply won’t last 100 years. But when I talk to you about tomorrow—it will have to cost nothing, be made with new materials and new techniques. It will, of necessity, be made of things as they are.

HT: If a young woman said to you today: “Charlotte Perriand, I would like to do what you do,” what would be your advice?

CP: It doesn’t happen out of the blue. It’s difficult. I had the good fortune to study at the École des Arts Décoratifs with professionals. The only advice I would give would be to stay within the reality of things, that is, the execution, the concrete. And then, she would have to make herself known, produce little things, show them, etc.

HT: Do you think Europe is becoming Americanized?

CP: I don’t know. I don’t know America, or the United States.

HT: Did you have contact with Charles and Ray Eames?

CP: No, but I like what they did. Aalto, Mies van der Rohe; they are all very serious, solid. They were open, too; they did not hate exclusively on one little thing.

HT: I ask because I see your Chinese baskets; you have similar collections. What, by the way, do you think of Andrée Putman?

CP: She’s a talented woman, but I don’t know her well enough. I don’t know if she dreams.

HT: And Gae Aulenti?

CP: It’s too formulaic; she builds rectangles upon rectangles. Putman is something else. If she designed a sleeping car, it would be well-made. If she made an airplane bathroom, it would be good. But it’s something else entirely. Anyway, I don’t want to judge others who work. It’s not my place.

HT: Of course. It’s too simple, but these are two female figures . . .

CP: Yes, that’s true, who count. . .

HT: I like your point about dreaming, because finally they are not modernists and they are not utopists. What message do you hope to send with the exhibition in Biot?

CP: Message? I’m not a soothsayer. The twenty-first century is unforeseeable: We don’t even know to what extent. In Japan I had an exhibition that closed in October, and with that show I did have a message. I said to the Japanese: Cultivate your difference. Don’t copy, cultivate your difference. And for Europe? I say, Don’t spend your time looking back. Move forward, whatever happens.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.