The modernism of Charlotte Perriand

Charlotte Perriand is one of those rare figures from history (not just architectural history) about whom it is possible to say immediately and without reservation was a genius. By age 23, she had already designed the chaise longue for which she would become famous and established herself as a prominent collaborator alongside one of the most notoriously demanding architects of the age: Le Corbusier. What follows are a number of images — photos, sketches, drawings — of her work along with a brief reflection by the historian Mary McLeod on Perriand and the broader discourse of feminist historiography in architecture as a whole.

I include McLeod’s essay not because it offers a standard feminist reading of architecture in general or Perriand in particular. Quite simply, it doesn’t. Besides, I never found accounts such as Flora Samuel’s Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist all that convincing, whatever her intentions might have been. Though McLeod remains committed to feminism in the context of architecture, she raises a number of issues that complicate simplistic approaches such as Beatriz Colomina’s which seek to “rescue” the neglected contributions of women in architecture and design from historical obscurity. Moreover, she challenges the “strategic essentialism” of poststructuralist accounts of gender, which tend to accept men’s self-identification with rationality, industry, and functionality and counterpose emotionality, domesticity, and formality as feminine alternatives. On the contrary, rather than cede these flattering associations to masculinity, McLeod demonstrates that Perriand was every bit as formalistically spare and ergonomically attuned as her male counterparts.

La femme au Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, article de Gaston Derys, 1926

“La femme au Salon des Artistes Décorateurs,” by Gaston Derys (1926)

Perriand: Reflections of feminism and modern

Mary McLeod
Harvard Design

In the United States today, feminist architecture history — like feminism in general — has nearly disappeared. The flood of publications during the early 1990s (Sexuality and Space, The Sex of Architecture, Architecture and Feminism) has by now ground to a halt; few schools continue to offer classes on “gender and architecture”; and scholars in their twenties or thirties tend to find other subjects — sustainability, digitalization, and globalization — more compelling. In addition to the larger social and political forces that seem to militate against feminist scholarship these days, its very success over the past three decades may have contributed to its decline. Names of once-forgotten women have been resurrected, the reputations of architecture’s male heroes have been taken down a notch or two, and blatant examples of sexual inequity and discrimination in the profession have been exposed, if not resolved. However, most feminist architecture historians and critics would reject any assessment of their project as complete, or its viability as dependent upon academic fashion. Although this lull is undoubtedly considered a setback, one positive byproduct may be that it offers a period of relative calm, removed from the heated polemics of an earlier period, to reflect on feminist historical writing and to reexamine its methods and premises.

Recently, I had just such an opportunity as the editor and one of the authors of a book on the French designer Charlotte Perriand.(1) Perriand is often grouped together with Eileen Gray and Lilly Reich as one of the unsung “heroes” of the European Modern Movement, whose design accomplishments have been eclipsed by those of the acknowledged giants: Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Aside from the three tubular-steel chairs that she designed with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret as a member of their firm, Perriand’s work was little known, even though her career spanned three-quarters of a century and extended to locales as diverse as Brazil, Congo, England, France, Japan, French New Guinea, Switzerland, and Vietnam. My initial interest in undertaking this book was sparked by a desire to redress this “wrong” and to make certain that her innovative designs would be removed from the shadow of Le Corbusier’s towering presence. However, the frequently collaborative nature of her work — like that of Reich, Ray Eames, and Alison Smithson — has made it more difficult to assess her contributions. In addition, like many successful women architects of her generation, Perriand did not wish to perceive herself first and foremost as a woman designer; nor did she particularly identify with the feminist movement in France, thus complicating efforts to cast her as a “role model” for contemporary women practitioners. Her career necessitated a more complex reading of the ways that gender intersected with Modern architecture than I had originally envisioned and raised several issues about the assumptions underlying many feminist readings of that architecture.

The first of these is the tendency to see women architects as victims, whose talent and vital contributions have been suppressed by their male collaborators or associates. This interpretation had a certain strategic value in the 1970s and 1980s, alerting architects to the shortcomings of the “Modern masters” and bringing the issue of gender discrimination to the fore. No doubt there were disturbing inequities in the profession, as is clearly evident in Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted, dismissive response to Perriand — “We don’t embroider cushions in my atelier” — when she first asked him for a job there. However, Perriand’s deep admiration for Le Corbusier, her insistence that being a woman did not interfere with her career, and her pleasure in seeing her work as part of a collaborative process all suggest that this characterization of women designers as victims, at least in Perriand’s case, has been overstated.

Here, a personal anecdote might be relevant. When I interviewed Perriand in 1997 and mentioned the photograph of her reclining on the chaise lounge with her head turned away from the camera, she responded angrily to a question about Beatriz Colomina’s reading of the image as representing Le Corbusier’s denial of her authorship and creative vision.(2) Perriand told me that she herself had set up the shot, that Pierre Jeanneret took the photo, and that Le Corbusier played no role in its conception and in fact was not there at the time. She insisted that it was her choice to turn her head in order to emphasize the chaise rather than its occupant, and that it was also her choice to use that image in her photomontage of the model apartment that she designed with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret for the 1929 Salon d’Automne apartment building. Continue reading