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Article by Jan Henderson.
Meeting Pernette Perriand-Barsac and Jacques Barsac this week at the CULT Melbourne showroom was a pleasure and a privilege. Both Pernette and Jacques are inspiring and passionate advocates of design and, in particular, the furniture design of Pernette’s mother, Charlotte Perriand. They have come to Australia to represent the legacy of the iconic products of Perriand through an exhibition initiated by Cassina.
This was an opportunity not only to view a curated selection of her beautiful furniture, but to also understand more about this amazing woman, who left an indelible mark on the world of design. Pernette and Jacques have dedicated their lives to the memory of Perriand and who better to know the real woman than her daughter, who was by her side for 20 years in the workshop that they shared.
Since his marriage to Pernette, Jacques, a highly acclaimed documentary maker, has embraced Perriand’s legacy, publishing two books of her life and work with another two in the pipeline. Together their mission is to represent the life, work and times of Charlotte Perriand as it was and they both celebrate her talent by bringing her story to a new generation of designers and design lovers.
To understand just how extraordinary Perriand was, you need to start at the beginning. Born in 1903, she was a woman not of her time, but far beyond it. It seems her own mother was just such a woman herself and Pernette recounts a story that when Perriand turned 18 she was given an opal ring by her mother, who then encouraged the young girl to embrace freedom and venture into the world to make her own living. Perriand did just that. Having studied at the Ecole de L’Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs in Paris from 1920 to 1925, she had found her forte in design. These were the days when women stayed at home and did not work, but Perriand threw convention to the wind and in 1927 contacted Le Corbusier, whose work she admired, to ask for a position with him. He turned her down at that time, but later the same year changed his mind after viewing a project she had designed (a rooftop bar in steel, aluminium and glass) and he invited her to work with him.
Perriand became an integral part of Le Corbusier’s studio and was responsible for designing furniture for his projects for more than a decade. She also learned about architecture from the maestro and so her design capabilities were enhanced and, in turn, flourished. Le Corbusier would define his ideas for furniture pieces – perhaps a chair for a man to sit in, a chaise for a person to rest upon – and it was Perriand’s job to create an object that encapsulated the requirements, but also design an individual piece from her creativity. This was the process that saw the wonderful LC4 CP chaise come into existence, along with the LC2 and LC3 chairs and many other chairs, tables and occasional furniture pieces that are now recognised as timeless classics.
The 1920s and 1930s saw an explosion of change in art and design and Perriand and her compatriots were at the vanguard of what is still recognised in design as a golden age. In 1937 she worked with artist Fernand Léger, who was a close friend, and also with Jean Prouvé. In 1940 she visited Japan to advise the Japanese Government on industrial arts. She lived there until 1942; however, when leaving for home she was interned due to the war. She returned to Paris in 1946 and again worked with Léger and Prouvé and in 1950 with Le Corbusier on his Unite d’Habitation apartment building in Marseilles.
Perriand took her inspiration from nature and loved photography. In her archives there are thousands of images of stones, bones, twisted metal – anything with form that might influence her creativity. She loved sport, as did many of her neighbours, the artists and designers who lived in Montparnasse at this time. She would often snow ski, mountain climb or venture underground to enjoy caving. Nature was a great influencer, as was culture and economy, wherever she lived, and her environment was reflected in her designs. She died in 1999, but was still working right up until the end.
Perriand’s designs are a diary of her life, and her spirit and creativity signposts on the journey. She was influenced by the everyday and reinterpreted her experiences designing furniture that was unique for its time and is still avant-garde today. These timeless objects are the essence of Charlotte Perriand, an extraordinary woman of our time.