How Charlotte Perriand Rose to Become Design’s Most Unexpected Luminary

An exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, in Paris, tracks how, against all odds, Charlotte Perriand became one of the most important architects and designers of the 20th century. By Alice Rawsthorn.

Photograph by Ambroise Tézenas at Talent and Partner.

A lesser woman might have given up—but not Charlotte Perriand. In 1927, two years after graduating from the École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, in Paris, the 24-year-old Perriand was invited to exhibit her work at the prestigious Salon d’Automne. Eager to make the most of her coup, she arranged a meeting with the influential modernist architect Le Corbusier. Perriand arrived at his Paris studio with high hopes that, if he saw her drawings, he would offer her a job.

“The austere office was somewhat intimidating, and his greeting rather frosty,” Perriand wrote in her memoirs. “ ‘What do you want?’ he asked, his eyes hooded by glasses. ‘To work with you.’ He glanced quickly through my drawings. ‘We don’t embroider cushions here,’ he replied, and showed me the door.”

Interior view of Perriand’s chalet in Méribel, France.

Photograph by Ambroise Tézenas at Talent and Partner.

Perriand’s daughter, Pernette Perriand-Barsac, making a rare appearance on the balcony of the chalet in Méribel.

Photograph by Ambroise Tézenas at Talent and Partner.

Perriand was not the first—and by no means the last—gifted and ambitious young woman to be dismissed so contemptuously by the alpha males who dominated architecture and design in the 1920s. But when she returned to the Salon d’Automne the next day, a friend explained that, after her visit, Le Corbusier and his cousin and collaborator, Pierre Jeanneret, had been to see her stand: a reconstruction of the dining area she had designed in a utilitarian, modern style for her tiny attic apartment on place Saint-Sulpice. They were so impressed that they invited her to join their studio as an interior designer.

Perriand spent the next decade working for Le Corbusier. During that time, she was chiefly responsible for the design of what became some of the most famous furniture—or l’équipement intérieur, as she called it—of the 20th century. Among her contributions are the boxy club chairs with plump leather cushions framed in chromed tubular steel that still furnish corporate foyers all over the world, and the sleek leather-clad chaise longues that often accompany them. You may even have seen a 1929 photograph taken by Jeanneret of a young woman lying on that same chaise longue, with fashionably bobbed hair, a daringly short skirt, and a necklace made from industrial ball bearings—that’s Perriand.

After leaving Le Corbusier’s studio, in 1937, she began an equally dynamic career as an independent designer and architect, which included collaborations with friends like the industrial designer Jean Prouvé. By her death, in 1999, three days after her 96th birthday, Perriand was regarded as a very rare grande dame in what are still the male-dominated fields of architecture and design. “Perriand was a sublime designer,” says Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. “She proved that modern design could be visionary and efficient, as well as comfortable, elegant, and intimate.”

Perriand, at her studio apartment on place Saint-Sulpice, with Le Corbusier, Percy Scholefield, Djo-Bourgeois, and Jean Fouquet, 1928.

Pierre Jeanneret/AChP © Archives Charlotte Perriand.

Jean Prouvé and Perriand, about 1953.

DR/AChP © Archives Charlotte Perriand.

All of those qualities will be on display in the retrospective of Perriand’s work opening on October 2 at Fondation Louis Vuitton, the art center designed by Frank Gehry in the Bois de Boulogne, the ­Parisian park where French royalty once hunted deer and bears. Timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Perriand’s death, the exhibition will combine examples of her architecture, furniture, interiors, and photography with works by her peers, including Isamu Noguchi and Pablo Picasso. The opening piece will be a specially commissioned reconstruction of the dining area in the place Saint-Sulpice attic that launched her career.

“We want to show Perriand as a central figure of the 20th century who participated in the great cultural and social movements of her time,” says Jean-Paul Claverie, adviser to Bernard Arnault, the chairman and CEO of the LVMH luxury group and president of the Fondation Louis Vuitton. “She developed a vision of nature, modernity, the environment, the changing role of women, and the transformation of society, which didn’t reject the past but always turned toward the future.”

Perriand and Pernette, 1947.

© Archives Charlotte Perriand.

Perriand’s independent spirit was as radical as her work. During the 1920s and ’30s, she was immersed in the Parisian avant-garde and befriended many of the most important international designers of the era when they visited Le Corbusier’s studio. One of her closest friends was the artist Fernand Léger, who became her neighbor when she left place Saint-Sulpice for Montparnasse. “He’d drop by early in the morning, and she’d give him a big bowl of café au lait and a tartine for breakfast,” says her daughter, Pernette Perriand-Barsac. (The local kids were less benign and nicknamed her L’Inhumaine when they saw Perriand wearing the ball-bearing necklace.) After a short-lived marriage to an Englishman, Percy Scholefield, Perriand began a passionate relationship with Jeanneret, who shared her love of travel, hiking, and mountaineering, and documented their ski expeditions by photographing her topless in the snow. By then, Perriand’s work had also become explicitly political. She and Jeanneret designed inexpensive furniture to be made from standardized industrial components, and prefabricated shelters to provide affordable housing and holiday homes for laborers.

View of the Perriand apartment in Paris.

Photograph by François Halard at Creative Exchange Agency; Photography assistant: Clement Vayssieres.

View of the Perriand apartment in Paris.

Photograph by François Halard at Creative Exchange Agency; Photography assistant: Clement Vayssieres.

View of the Perriand apartment in Paris.

Photograph by François Halard at Creative Exchange Agency; Photography assistant: Clement Vayssieres.

Her achievement is all the greater given that Perriand had to ­overcome not only the obstacle of her gender but also that of her humble background. Most of the very few women who succeeded in forging design careers during the early 20th century could only do so thanks to the financial support of their wealthy families. Take the Irish designer Eileen Gray: Her houses on the Provençal coast are now hailed as pioneering models of sensuous modernism, but they were only built because she could afford to pay for them. Gray had but one client as an architect—herself.

By contrast, Perriand’s father worked as a tailor, and her mother as a seamstress. Money was tight, but she had the great advantages of being the adored only child of a skillful and resourceful couple, and of being raised in an apartment building filled with hatters, featherers, ­dressmakers, and other artisans. Equally valuable was her exposure to rural France during summer holidays at her paternal grandparents’ home in the Savoy Alps. Critically, Perriand also benefited from being a more robust and confident character than the introspective Gray; she had the chutzpah to lead a bolder life. “There is so much to admire about Perriand,” says the British interior designer Ilse Crawford, founder of Studioilse. “Her work, first and foremost, but also her sheer force of character.”

Perriand left Paris for Tokyo in 1940 to work as an adviser on industrial design to the Japanese government. She used the assignment as an opportunity to travel throughout Japan and to study its craft traditions—some of the most intriguing pieces in the exhibition are the bamboo chairs Perriand made there. She was deeply moved by the economy, ­elegance, and subtlety of historic Japanese design and architecture, but in 1942, at the height of World War II, she was expelled from the country as an “undesirable alien.” The wartime naval blockade made it impossible for her to return to France, so she headed for the then-French colony of Indochina, which included Cambodia, Laos, and ­Vietnam. Resilient as ever, Perriand persuaded a French government official to commission her to conduct a study of Indochinese craftsmanship. “Perriand combined a modern mind-set with traditional materials, craft techniques, and local knowledge and cultures,” notes Crawford. “And her depth of knowledge explains why her furniture seems as good and relevant today as it was when it was first designed.”

View of the Perriand apartment in Paris.

Photograph by François Halard at Creative Exchange Agency; Photography assistant: Clement Vayssieres.

View of the Perriand apartment in Paris.

Photograph by François Halard at Creative Exchange Agency; Photography assistant: Clement Vayssieres.

In 1946, Perriand returned to Paris, accompanied by a new husband—Jacques Martin, the helpful government official who had green-lighted her work in Indochina—and their toddler daughter, Pernette. ­Perriand described herself and Martin as “polar opposites united,” and her memoirs paint a happy portrait of their mutually enriching marriage. They shared a passion for intrepid travel, and Martin, unusually for a man of that era, was proud of his wife’s achievements and encouraged her ambition. After their return to Paris, he joined Air France and was posted to Japan and Brazil. Perriand remained in France but visited him frequently and created some of her most exquisite interiors for his homes in Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.

At around that time, Colonel Peter Lindsay, a winter-sports enthusiast born in Scotland, roped Perriand into a grand plan to transform farmland near the tiny hamlet of Méribel, in Savoy, into a fashionable ski resort. There, Perriand designed the furnishings and interiors of chalets and hotels built in the style of historic wooden Savoyard buildings. In lieu of payment, Lindsay gave her a plot of land where she built her own chalet for family holidays. (By the late 1960s, she was immersed in an even bolder scheme to build Les Arcs, a huge ski resort 35 miles from Méribel.) She also started working with Prouvé, developing furniture in his factory, and in the 1950s they both designed limited-edition furniture for Steph Simon, a charismatic design dealer whose social circle included the movie stars Brigitte Bardot and Simone Signoret. Perriand also collaborated with Léger on the postwar reconstruction of a hospital in Saint-Lô, in northern France, and designed kitchen prototypes for one of Le Corbusier’s masterpieces, the Unité d’Habitation housing complex in Marseille. Martin helped her to secure a commission to modernize Air France’s ticket offices in London and Tokyo.

These projects definitively established Perriand as a unique force in architecture whose sensitivity to environmental conditions and use of local materials and stylistic references prefigured core concerns of architects today. The grand finale of the Fondation Louis Vuitton ­exhibition is a reconstruction of one of her last major projects, a teahouse she designed in 1993 in the garden of UNESCO’s global headquarters in Paris, as an affectionate homage to the ones she had visited in Japan.

Perriand in Japan, 1954.

Jacques Martin/AChP © Archives Charlotte Perriand.

Beguiling though the teahouse is, the most evocative places to experience Perriand’s work are her own homes, the Méribel chalet and the Paris apartment she designed in 1972. The chalet is a wonderful ­example of the fusion of Savoyard rustic architecture and Perriand’s Japanese influences. Both the exterior and interior are made from local stone and wood, as is the furniture. The Japanese influence is equally strong in the apartment, but it is also infused with the other side of Perriand’s design sensibility—her inner Parisienne. Perriand bought it when ­Martin fell ill, after charging Pernette with finding a home near her design studio with views for him to enjoy. Occupying the attic of an apartment building, it offers a magnificent sweep of Paris, from ­Sacré-Coeur in ­Montmartre to the Eiffel Tower. “I searched and searched, but everything was too expensive,” Pernette recalls. “I thought this place would be too small, but when Charlotte saw the view, she said, “ ‘Okay, we’ll make it work. We’ll live as if we’re in a ship’s cabin.’ ”

The apartment has been left intact since Perriand’s death, and paints an inspiring portrait of her life. Large walls are lined with wooden shelves bearing her books—on politics, history, and philosophy, as well as art and design—alongside mementos of her travels with Martin to Brazil, Chile, Peru, Australia, Tahiti, Thailand, and other far-flung places. Some of her souvenirs are pots and carvings crafted by gifted artisans, but most are stones, shells, feathers, animal skulls, and anything else that caught her eye.

Perriand designed screens to slide across the shelves to disguise or reveal more books and a tiny TV set. Tucked in a corner is her old record player. “Charlotte loved music and had a wonderful singing voice,” ­Pernette says. “We’d all sing together in the evenings in Paris and Méribel, and I so regret not having recorded her.”