“Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World” is one of the most spectacular and ambitious exhibitions held to date at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. It is also the first to make such full use of the various spaces – ranging in size from enormous to small and intimate – of Frank Gehry‘s remarkable building on the edge of Paris in the Jardin de l’Acclimatation.
Perriand was born in 1903 and died in ’99, making her a 20th-century designer par excellence. Also an architect and photographer, she long lived in the shadows of her famous bosses, the cousins Le Corbusier (real name: Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) and Pierre Jeanneret, but she is now finally recognized in her own right as one of the greats of modern design, who helped create such classic pieces as the B306 chaise longue (1928) for the firm, which she left in 1937 as Corbusier’s politics veered to the right and hers to the left.
The show begins with faithful re-creations of interiors she designed, based on photos and plans of the originals. Visitors are allowed to touch the pieces on display here and even sit on the furniture.
Her interiors, which embody many of the principles of modernist design – open spaces, lightweight furnishings, mass production – still look beautiful today but were often a hard sell in her time. They illustrate a major theme that runs throughout the show: Perriand’s strong and always applied belief in breaking down the walls between the fine and applied arts: a room designed by Perriand might contain not only her furniture but also artworks by Fernand Léger, Le Corbusier, Alexander Calder, Robert Delaunay and Pablo Picasso (major works by these artists and others abound in the exhibition).
The modern world of machinery was a major reference for Perriand and her frequent collaborator Léger early on, but as World War II threatened, she turned to nature for inspiration for both her photographs and designs, preferring wood and other natural materials over steel or chrome and more organic, sculptural forms.
Perriand was also interested in creating a dialogue between cultures. When she went to Japan in 1940 as an adviser to the Ministry for Trade and Industry, for example, she not only introduced the Japanese to her style of industrial design, but also took inspiration from the country’s aesthetics and materials, designing lightweight furnishings that were easy to move and store away, among them a highly sculptural bamboo chaise longue and the stackable Ombre (Shadow) chair, made of molded plywood. Similarly, when she went to Brazil, she adapted her designs, using local techniques like caning.
Another tenet of this confirmed socialist (and, for a time, communist) was that beauty should not belong only to the wealthy. Much of her furniture was mass-produced, and she had the idea of commissioning a drawing from Picasso, making a print of it and integrating it into a window in her Minimum Family House (1947) design, the idea being that everyone could have a Picasso.
One of the many highlights of this exhibition is the ingenious barrel-shaped Tonneau mountain refuge Perriand designed with Pierre Jeanneret in 1938. Visitors can climb into it and explore the cozy compact interior, fitted with everything one might need, including kitchen and bathroom, and views of the mountains through the windows in the top-level sleeping area.
One whole room in the exhibition is devoted to the low-cost (at the time) buildings she designed for the French ski resort Les Arcs, in which nearly every apartment has a balcony and a view of nature and is equipped with a prefabricated kitchen and bathroom. Perriand, “one of the great builders of the 20th century,” according to exhibition curator Sébastien Cherruet, refused to design landscape-blighting towers, as requested by the developers, or clichéd chalets, instead creating graduated structures that hugged the mountainside and were invisible to skiers on the slopes.
In another room, the innovative Japanese teahouse with a suspended Mylar tent Perriand designed for UNESCO in 1993 has been re-created and is surrounded by bamboo plants, offering visitors a moment of zen-like calm
A special treat awaits at the end of the show: the “Maison au Bord de l’Eau” (1934) on stilts, a prefabricated vacation home with a terrace that most of us would kill to have today, set up right up in the foundation’s fountain. Again, visitors are welcome to enter and explore the house, open to nature and contemplation.
As Cherruet said at the opening of the exhibition, “We didn’t really have to curate this show. Charlotte Perriand was the curator herself in the way she synthesized art and design.” Don’t miss this wonderful show.