The passion and politics of my mother, Charlotte Perriand
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One of Pernette Perriand-Barsac’s earliest recollections of her mother, the iconic French designer Charlotte Perriand (1903-99), is of a ski trip to Méribel when she was five years old. Perriand-Barsac hated the experience but her mother, an accomplished winter sportswoman, was determined she would master the slopes – and stand on her own two feet. “She took me on a mountain and told me to go down it on my own. I said, ‘No, I will not do it’, took off my skis and walked down.”
It is just one story she tells of their shared tenacity. Perriand, it transpires, was challenged by her own mother at 18, when she was given an opal ring and told to go out and make a living. “Work is freedom” was her advice. Perriand went on to succeed as a designer and architect in a man’s world: her mantra – “l’art de vivre” (“the art of living”) – born of the belief that good design could transform lives.
Perriand-Barsac, an only child (who was born in 1944 to Perriand’s second husband, Jacques Martin, a French government official whom she met while working in Vietnam), says life and work “mingled together” during her upbringing. She talks joyfully of shared mealtimes with her mother at the same table in their Paris apartment where the designer pored over her projects. “It was a kind of home office,” she says. Perriand-Barsac, an interior designer who studied with Jean Prouvé, went on to work alongside Perriand at her studio for some 20 years until her mother’s death, aged 96, in 1999. Rather than feeling overshadowed by her mother’s achievements, however, Perriand-Barsac has become a standard-bearer for her work. Together with her husband, the historian, author and former documentary director Jacques Barsac, she oversees the Charlotte Perriand archive.
The pair continues to work with Italian design brand Cassina, which has produced models by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Perriand since 1964 – and which has been the only company authorised to make Perriand designs since 2004. The couple regularly release new editions, the pieces often refreshed with modern technology or materials – an evolution of what Perriand began. “I travelled cheek-to-cheek with my mother over many years so I know exactly what was in her mind,” Perriand-Barsac says of their work.
I meet them at Cassina’s glass-lined showroom on the Boulevard Saint-Germain in Paris, a bastion of modern design, where we’re ushered towards Perriand’s Boomerang desk. The piece (which Cassina launched in October, priced around £20,000) was originally designed for Jean-Richard Bloch, the co-director of Ce Soir newspaper in 1938, and one imagines the table as being the centrepiece of many anti-fascist gatherings. We swap positions around it, testing the ergonomics of its sweeping form. “The function of a piece was very important to Charlotte,” says Perriand-Barsac, who explains how the design enables 10 people to be seated without any one being in the central position – a play on equality.
Behind the desk is one of Perriand’s most recognisable creations, the Nuage bookshelf: an archetype of adaptable modular design dating back to 1952. The piece has spawned thousands of copies, while vintage versions command hefty sums at auction: one sold for €691,000 at an Artcurial Paris sale in 2018. Cassina’s authorised versions are priced from £10,000.
Cassina’s latest Perriand reissue will launch at Milan’s design festival next week. Her 1970 Table Monta coffee table – a solid wood ring of eight symmetrical sectors framing a marble slab – will be made in a limited edition of 30 pieces in Perriand’s original natural walnut and Azul Bahia granite combination, or updated in black-stained ash combined with a black Marquinia, Alpi green, Sahara Noir or Calacatta gold marble.
Perriand-Barsac is excited about the launch, not least because she remembers the coffee table in her mother’s home. Perriand filled her apartments with her own creations: her ’20s shock sensation, the Bar Sous Le Toit (Bar Under the Roof) – an aluminium cocktail bar surrounded by nickel-plated copper stools, a chrome-plated table and leather banquette – was a recreation of her own studio-apartment on Place Saint-Sulpice. Shown at the Salon d’Automne of 1927, it distilled the spirit of the age and led Le Corbusier to hire Perriand on the spot. Only a month before, “Corbu” (as she came to call him) had refused her request for work with the now infamous line: “We don’t embroider cushions here.”
Perriand, then 24, was made an associate for furniture, and returned to the Salon d’Automne of 1929 with Le Corbusier and his cousin Jeanneret (who famously became her lover) as Le Corbusier studio. They dazzled with furniture destined to become classics: the cube-shaped Grand Confort armchair, the ponyskin chaise longue and the swivelling leather chair. But in 1959, when Swiss entrepreneur Heidi Weber decided to reissue the pieces, she did so solely under the name of her hero Le Corbusier. “My mother wasn’t happy,” says Perriand-Barsac with a grimace. “She started her fight right then to be recognised as someone who had made changes with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret at the atelier.”
Many have assumed Perriand’s contribution was simply dismissed; Barsac will tell you a different story: “When you search through the newspapers in the archives from 1928, ’29 and ’30, everybody talked about Perriand, Le Corbusier and Jeanneret, and in some newspapers they only talked about the famous furniture of Charlotte Perriand. At some point they all forgot,” he shrugs. “The problem starts when people talk of legends rather than reality. They talk of the sketches made by Le Corbusier for those designs. We say, where are the drawings? Show me them. You have the programme of Le Corbusier, his study of ergonomics [a sketch analysis of “seven states of sitting”], but that is all. The archive tells us everything, but only one historian has come to see it!”
Daughter and son-in-law have done much to return Perriand’s name to the spotlight, including co-curating the Fondation Louis Vuitton exhibition in Paris in 2019, which attracted queues of some 476,000 people. “Both of them also helped Cassina to reconstruct a very authentic sole collection by Perriand of six designs in 2004,” says Cassina’s head of brand communications, Sara Nosrati. “And in October, we announced that designs by all three designers in our collection would revert back to their original French names.”
Perriand left Le Corbusier’s studio in 1937 but they remained on good terms (she later designed equipment for his Marseille Unité d’Habitation housing project, completed in 1952). As a young girl, Perriand-Barsac remembers both Le Corbusier and Jeanneret as a part of Perriand’s extended family, which also included her close friend, the French painter Fernand Léger. “There was no such thing as babysitters back then,” she reminisces. “So on Thursdays, when I didn’t attend school, I sometimes went to Léger’s studio. I was part of a magical world.”
Charlotte Perriand lived a bohemian lifestyle. As she once proclaimed: “Art is in everything. It is in a gesture, a vase, a cooking pan… Making love is an art.” According to Barsac, the exhibitions she organised throughout her career also fused her passion for art and design within the idea of a lifestyle. “She included tapestries by Le Corbusier, paintings by Léger, and called on friends such as Miró and Calder to loan works,” he says.
Perriand took a holistic approach to architecture: “She often drew in scale 1:1 in order to have a real idea of what a piece would be and how it would fit in a space,” says Perriand-Barsac. And her ideas were political. She rebelled against architectural stereotyping, for example, by creating open-plan spaces where housewives were freed from isolation in the kitchen. “If she joined forces with another architect firm on a project, she refused the fee. She said, ‘Never accept that money because then you’re free to do what you want,’” Perriand-Barsac says. Of working in a male-dominated world, she says her mother was ambivalent: “She said it didn’t matter who you worked for. What mattered was the passion inside, and what you offered the world.”
Perriand’s adventurous spirit took her to Japan in 1940 and to Vietnam two-and-a-half years later, where she produced pieces such as the 1943 Indochine chair (£3,000) in wood and leather – a design envisioned with local techniques and materials. Perriand adapted her creations to what was available around her. “She had no set philosophy: it differed from the time, from the situation, from the country and its techniques and, of course, based on the cost to make it,” adds Barsac.
Perriand-Barsac’s most vivid childhood recollections of her mother are being given crayons and paper to keep her occupied as Perriand worked. “I found a photograph in the archive of an exhibition by Charlotte at the Museum of Decorative Arts in 1949,” says Barsac. “She asked Pernette to draw for the exhibition, so it shows a beautiful painting by Léger [now in the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago] and on the right is a very big drawing by Pernette. She had a teddy bear, which you see in a lot of the photographs of the time.”
Perriand-Barsac was also fortunate enough to live in Japan with her mother and father from 1953 to 1955. The young girl was mesmerised by Japanese trinkets but was only given the money to buy them if she produced a drawing good enough “to be paid for it”. Much has been made of the influence of Japan on Perriand’s work, though Barsac stresses that this was essentially philosophical: “They didn’t use chairs or beds, so that wasn’t a reference. What influenced Perriand most was the ‘philosophy of the void’ and the thinking behind their rituals.”
Perriand’s 1954 Ombra Tokyo chair (from £1,500) was inspired by the void. “She made it in black, a colour she often used to make pieces almost disappear,” explains Barsac. It is Perriand-Barsac’s favourite chair: “It’s very pure. Charlotte took a piece of paper and folded it and found the shape, like origami.” She is cautious however, about attributing her mother’s style to one aesthetic. “She wasn’t just influenced by Asia but also South America and sometimes mixed cultures. Brazil was a big influence,” she adds.
We examine Perriand’s (c1952) Mexique stool (from £1,800), recently updated in a material for outdoor use. “For Charlotte, it was possible to work with every material. She was known for tubular metal but called wood, Madam wood,” says Perriand-Barsac. “By the end of her life she started working with carbon, but this was very expensive. My wish is to one day find a good project so we can use carbon with Cassina. Charlotte would be thrilled…”