Democratic Beauty

The Designs of Charlotte Perriand

Charlotte Perriand boarded the Japanese ocean liner Hakusanmaru just one day after the German army captured Paris in 1941. She had been invited one month prior by the Imperial Ministry of Commerce and Industry, at the suggestion of Sori Yanagi, to serve as an industrial design consultant to the Department of Trade Promotion. Many years later in her autobiography, Perriand would remember the day she left with uncertainty, saying, “When I left Paris, I’d been at a crossroads that had inexorably led me to a place I didn’t know, hadn’t even suspected existed.  My luggage should have stayed on the platform at the Gare de Lyon. I shouldn’t have taken the train to Marseilles that day.”  Europe and Asia were engulfed in conflict, and Japan took advantage of the occupation of France to extend its military control over French Indochina. Perriand, of course, had no way to know that her time spent in Asia would result in some of the most significant changes to her life; she later recalled “Is that what’s known as destiny?”

In the years leading up to her time abroad, Perriand had undergone a series of changes of her own. In 1937 Perriand left Le Corbusier’s studio after ten years, the depression had taken its toll on all of Europe as it teetered on the brink of war, and the designer increasingly distanced herself from her glass and metal designs of the late 1920s. Instead, Perriand designs took on more democratic sensibilities. Active in the leftist, radical political sect, Perriand was charged with the mission to design inexpensive furniture for the people who needed it the most. She found inspiration on her frequent retreats to the mountains of Savoy, meeting with local craftsmen and immersing herself in nature.  She designed her first free-form desk in 1938 for Jean-Richard Bloch. The wood was salvaged from the Temps Nouveaux Pavilion, its satiny finish and voluptuous form was meant “to make the room sing”.

 In Japan, Perriands schedule was full with visits around the country. She spent her first several months in the countryside, visiting craftsmen in remote villages.  Perriand immersed herself in the culture, experiencing Japan both physically and spiritually. In keeping with the path she was forging back in France, Perriand was especially interested in the rich craft-art tradition of Japanese artisans who utilized ancient techniques and natural materials. She studied woodworking and the intricacies of Japanese tea ceremonies, revealing a world of harmonious simplicity that she would translate in her designs.

Coinciding with her discoveries in Japan, her host country was becoming ever more engulfed in the war that was spreading across Asia and Europe.  Perriand traveled to Hanoi in 1941 with the intention of returning to France by way of the United States. Her plans were abruptly shattered when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, a declaration of war. Unable to return to Japan let alone France, Perriand remained in Vietnam for the next five years where she would meet and marry her husband Jacques Martin and give birth to their daughter, Pernette. She later recalled, “The pressures of war were growing, and suffering was in the air. I had to counter death with life. Paradoxically, I decided to do so at the worst possible moment.”

Throughout two decades of turmoil, Perriand’s aesthetic had undergone a dramatic evolution. The horrors of war and economic instability only heightened her desire to create affordable and beautiful furniture, and she continued to cultivate joyful and harmonious spaces. Returning to Europe after the war, Perriand believed more than ever in celebrating the simple joys of everyday life, the inherent beauty of nature and engaging peacefully with her surroundings. This humanist sentiment, both a reaction to the time, but also inherent in the designer, culminated in Perriand’s philosophy,  l’art d’habiter or the art of living - a doctrine that would provide foundation and inspiration for the rest of her life.

The present lot, a sumptuous free-form table, typifies this evolution. The tactile quality of the materials and the physicality of the form engage the negative space, a quality emphasized in Japanese aesthetic. The natural curvature of the table top allows all who are seated the table to face one another and engage in conversation while economizing on space. It stands as an invitation to sit, eat, enjoy friends and family and take pleasure in life’s simple tasks - to participate in the art of living. 

Even today, this manner of being pervades every aspect of Japanese life and profoundly affects the visitor. There is no difference between city and country. Architecture, nature and man are one. 

—Charlotte Perriand

Charlotte Perriand 1903–1999

At the age of twenty-four Charlotte Perriand approached Le Corbusier and asked to join the designer’s famed studio. While studying at Paris’s École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, Perriand read two of Le Corbusier’s most notable works, Ver une architecture and L’Art decorative d’aujourd’hui prompting her to distance herself from the Art Deco aesthetic and seek out a style more relevant to the machine-age. Le Corbusier famously turned her away, stating "we don’t embroider cushions here." Months later, after seeing her Bar sous le toi the Salon D’Automne exhibition in Paris, he apologized and hired her on. Perriand worked for him for ten years, collaborating with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret on numerous projects, most notably a set of tubular steel chairs that would become one of her most well-known designs. In the 1930s, concerned with social issues, Perriand worked to create functional and affordable designs. Moving away from the machine-age aesthetic of glass and metal, Perriand began experimenting with natural materials. She traveled to Japan as an official advisor on industrial design to the Ministry for Trade and Industry and became enamored with the simplistic beauty of Japanese design. Perriand studied local woodworking and immersed herself in the functional yet refined forms. Perriand revitalized her career upon returning to Europe in 1947, creating harmonious simplicity in her designs – what she called l’art d’habiter. She continued her collaboration with Le Corbusier on the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles and worked with Fernand Leger and Jean Prouvé on various commissions. In 1985, her long career was celebrated with a retrospective at the Musée des Arts-Décoratifs in Paris and she remains one of the most influential designers of the 20th Century.

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