19 June - 5 September 2021
‘Better to spend a day in the sun than to spend it dusting our useless objects.’ We can’t help but agree with Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999), whose pioneering design streamlined the way we live. The Design Museum’s newly-opened retrospective Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life spans a remarkable 70-year career in which an inimitable spirit and zest for life pushed the French prodigy to the forefront of design.
The story begins in Paris in the 1920’s when a young, aspiring Perriand wrote to Le Corbusier asking for a job in his studio. ‘We don’t embroider cushions here,’ came the rebuff. Undeterred, Perriand set about transforming her own tiny apartment in Saint-Sulpice according to her unique vision. Out with decorative wooden furniture and fussy bourgeois ideals and in with sleek metal, glass and open plan living. She presented her radical Bar sous le toit (Bar under the roof) at the Salon d’Automne of 1927 – a recreation of the aluminium and chrome bar she’d made in the attic of her apartment. On seeing it, Le Corbusier changed his mind and invited her to join his studio where she then worked for nearly a decade.
Collaboration with Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret resulted in the invention of the iconic chaise longue basculante, as well as a series of armchairs and swivel chairs using light yet strong ‘bicycle tubes’ instead of wood for the frames. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the chance to lie back in them and appreciate just how comfortable they truly are. Thanks to Cassina, the exhibition’s Reconstruction Content Partner you could while away a good few minutes in the chaise longue that perfectly cushions your head, cradles your body and lifts your feet off the floor.
The layout for the show lures you onwards with square windows that allow you to peek through into the next space. By the 1930’s Perriand breaks away from Le Corbusier, spending an intrepid 2 years in Japan – an experience that had a lasting impact on her work. In come natural materials and organic forms that combine with her sleek, practical design. There are sinuous tabletops and chaise longues made from bamboo. Best of all is the brilliant Boomerang Desk (1938) designed for the editor of the French newspaper, Ce Soir. Sitting behind the vast, curving desktop in a swivel chair, he would be able to host editorial meetings and turn to face each member of the team in turn without any sense of hierarchy.
The final part of the show is given to Perriand’s designs for the French ski resort of Les Arcs. It’s the peak of her career and makes the perfect conclusion. Modern cabins staggered into the mountainside feature ski-in entrances and double-glazed picture windows overlooking the valley. Though not as pretty as chocolate-box chalets, you can’t fail to grasp the sense of ease that comes with this practical design, here in a new resort that made skiing accessible to the many rather than the few. Scattered throughout the show are Perriand’s notebooks, letters and photographs including one in this final room of her turning topless to face the mountains, arms thrown up in the air. It is the image of a modern woman, freed from the constraints of the home and out seizing life, enjoying life and making the most of life. All this thanks to her own good design.