In conversation with the daughter of legendary designer Charlotte Perriand
First published in the November 2012 edition of ELLE Decoration UK
It must be hard to be the offspring of an icon. Bearing the weight of familial legacy, and perhaps struggling in its wake to develop your own identity. But then Pernette Perriand, daughter of legendary furniture designer Charlotte, says, ‘It’s more interesting to talk about Charlotte! It’s inspiring to live in her work.’ And yet, to make no mark of your own creation? To live solely through the life of another? Not something I’d embrace with the willingness that Pernette seemingly has. However, everything I’ve read about Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) evokes a strong, determined character, who Pernette remembers as being very strict and precise: ‘She would explain the details of everything.’ And despite many articles lauding her as a woman working in what was then perceived to be a man’s world, the impression is that she did not regard her gender as something that held her back. True, Le Corbusier’s rebuff – ‘we don’t embroider cushions here’ – when Perriand first approached the maestro looking for work in 1927, was, according to Pernette, extremely upsetting, but her mother’s response was simply to keep designing. An invitation to see her aluminium and copper ‘Bar under the Roof’ filled with tubular steel furniture, exhibited at the Salon d’Automne later that year, caused Le Corbusier to change his mind and hire her.
Pernette is Perriand’s only child, born as a result of a second marriage to a French government official she met in Vietnam, but more on that later. Perriand had married once before, straight after graduating in 1925, but three years after she joined Le Corbusier’s atelier, the union floundered, one assumes due to the blossoming of her creativity, and ultimately the discovery of a lover and key collaborator in Le Corbusier’s cousin and studio partner Pierre Jeanneret. Indeed, the artist Fernand Léger, a close friend, described them as ‘two little romantics on the straight and narrow path that’s something new’. It was of course with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret that Perriand created the furniture classics we know so well: the boxy ‘LC2 Grand Confort’, essentially a large leather cushion held together by metal tubing; the ‘B306’ chaise longue and the reclining ‘B301’, described as a chair for conversing in.
Nevertheless, in 1940 Perriand accepted an invitation from the Japanese government to advise their Ministry of Trade and Industry. I was intrigued by this and keen to learn from Pernette why her mother left a man she obviously loved and work she adored for such unknown territory. ‘It was an opportunity extraordinaire,’ she explains, adding that archived letters also reveal work had dried up in Paris, friends were effectively destitute and she actually had no choice. However, other correspondence shows that the Japanese promised that Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret could follow her. Sadly, as we now know, the war intervened, allegiances switched and Perriand became an ‘undesirable alien’ not long after she’d arrived. Unable to return to Europe and denied permission to flee to America, in 1942 she was forced to make Vietnam her home. Now aged 40, one imagines she seized the opportunity for motherhood before it was lost, marrying the aforementioned local official in 1943. Perriand eventually returned to Paris when Pernette was three years old.
For Pernette, the rituals and aesthetic of Asia remain a strong influence. That, and the fact that her mother ‘taught her to see, to really look at things: mountains, stones, bones, things you wouldn’t normally look at. C’était formidable,’ she says. Trained as an interior architect, Pernette worked with Perriand for the last 20 years of her life, and today, with her husband Jacques Barsac, is sole guardian of her mother’s archive. She’s also spent a considerable amount of time in court, establishing Perriand’s sole authorship of works created while directing the furniture department at Ateliers Jean Prouvé. Pieces were certainly manufactured by Prouvé, but the designs were pure Perriand. It’s been an arduous battle for recognition as early dealers preferred to credit works either jointly or solely to Prouvé on account of the latter’s perceived superior value. Today, the fight is almost over, yet Pernette still devotes energy to chasing down unauthorised copies of her mother’s oeuvre, for which the manufacturing rights belong solely to Cassina. ‘The royalty money enabled Charlotte to live and now maintains the archive and allows us to mount exhibitions. This is the only way her memory can live on,’ says Pernette. ‘Charlotte gave her whole life for her copyright to be recognised. She condemned the copiers and told them to invest more in the creativity of young people.’ I couldn’t agree more. And, it strikes me, it is perhaps right that she has such a dedicated guardian of her honour in Pernette.
The Q&A Pernette Perriand
Tell me five words to describe yourself…Stubborn. Determined. Impatient. Hard-working.
What star sign are you? Pisces, or Monkey in the Chinese horoscope.
If you could change your nationality, what would you be? Perhaps Japanese. I was very influenced and integrated in this culture when I was young.
What did you want to be as a child? A dancer! In fact I studied acrobatics, as in the circus, going to classes twice a week until I was 21 years old.
Do you collect anything? Stones. When we travel, we bring back many stones. I keep them all round the house, but also put them around Charlotte’s grave in the cemetery in Méribel.
What are you reading right now? Nothing at all. I’ve been in Méribel for a month working flat out, from eight in the morning to eight at night, on Charlotte’s chalet in the alps [Chalet de Méribel, built in 1960].
Your house is burning down. What do you grab? The cat that Charlotte gave to my daughter. He’s called Moustache.
You’re hosting a fantasy dinner party and can invite anyone you like, alive or dead, real or fictitious. Who do you invite? [The artist] Fernand Léger, the choreographer Carolyn Carlson; the architects Oscar Niemeyer and Shigeru Ban.
What’s your favourite colour? White, because it’s pure. Or black. They’re the same.
Do you believe in luck? Yes.
Do you have any regrets? No.