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Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life opens at the Design Museum, London

June 25, 2021

In 1940 French architect and designer Charlotte Perriand was aboard the Hakusan Maru enroute to Japan. Sailor graffiti chalked on the ship's deck inspired a rug design and new design directions

The iconic 1928/29 photograph of Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) reclining on her famous tubular metal chaise longue basculante—rightfully reclassified as a collaboration after decades of sole attribution to architect and urban planner Le Corbusier (1887-1965)—lulls many to believe they ‘know’ her work. The must-see exhibition Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life at London’s Design Museum reveals in chronological order how Perriand’s ideas shifted away from ‘the machine age’ to ‘the art of living’ as realised through the ‘raw art’ of the natural world—ideas that were reinforced during her 1940-41 visit to Japan.

Rug by Charlotte Perriand

The woman who once defended metal as superior to wood in The Studio magazine (1929) was natively drawn to nature as a mountain climber, skier, beachcomber, sea lover. Perriand shifted to materials such as woven straw, waney-edge timber, bamboo and natural, found forms. She didn’t shy away from metal, but instead of exclusively shiny machined finishes she moved towards rugged metals like iron. Her buildings always allowed occupants to gain a window—literally and figuratively—onto the landscape. Being ‘at one’ with nature became an overriding concept for Perriand, inspired in part by her time in Japan where shakkei or a ‘borrowed view’ is ‘framed’ to enhance the user’s interior experience.

In 1941 Perriand organised an exhibition in Japan at the Takashimaya department store. Intended as a ‘cultural dialogue’, Perriand curated the exhibition to celebrate ‘hand made modernism’. Contact with Japanese Art: Selection, Tradition, Creation featured her bamboo and timber case goods alongside Japanese vernacular objects, mingei (Japanese folk art), and textiles. Two of Perriand’s textile works were included: a wall tapestry based on a child’s drawing of five figures holding a log-like object, and a wool rug based on sailor’s graffiti chalked onto the deck of the Hakusan Maru ship that brought her to Japan. Perriand photographed the graffiti and enlarged it for her rug as an intentional mimesis of the original. An anthropomorphic insect-like being lies next to a fish and some free-form doodles. It’s tempting to interpret the insect as a cicada—an insect integral to Japanese concepts of summer and one that features prominently in Japanese culture. 

Rug by Charlotte Perriand

Perriand preferred to describe herself as an ‘interior architect’—as she herself explains in one of several short films dotted throughout the exhibition—because the term describes her desire to ‘build from the inside out’. She believed furnishings and architecture needed to be designed together to achieve the ‘art of living’, a concept more, not less, apropos to life in the 21st century.

The exhibition continues until 5 September 2021.

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