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Inventing a New World

Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

Reviewed by Catherine Croft
Winter 2019

Charlotte Perriand’s La Maison au Bord de L’eau (1934)

This exhibition in Paris last winter took its title from a supremely confident quote. ‘There is a whole new world that absorbs our interest, because ultimately, the Profession of Architecture is work in the service of humanity,’ wrote Charlotte Perriand in 1936. This was in a letter to Pierre Jeanneret, who ran an architectural practice with his cousin, Le Corbusier. Perriand (1903–99) was clearly tough: the story is that when she first applied to work with Corbusier, she was rebuffed with the scathing putdown that ‘we don’t embroider cushions here.’ But in the 1920s and 1930s she collaborated with these two giants of French modernism on some of their most famous projects (including the Villa Savoye, the Cité du Réfuge for the French Salvation Army, and the Pavillon Suisse at the Cité Universitaire). She did much more besides, and this show made a strong case for her to seen as much more than a beauty recumbent on a Corbusier chaise longue wearing a ball-bearing-necklace, as she is so often depicted. She is now firmly credited as the author of that iconic piece, and clearly deserves to be revered not just as a designer but as a thinker and researcher.

The entire building – designed by Frank Gehry – was given over to Perriand’s work. There were lots of room sets, but most impressive of all were the full-size reconstructions of two 1930s projects which remained unrealised during her lifetime. Both could be entered and the fittings handled. Both have had previous outings at design fairs, and done much to boost Perriand’s reputation, but here they could be seen in the context of an impressive life’s work. The aluminium, pine-lined, rocket-shaped Tonneau refuge was designed as a ski refuge, while the Maison au Bord de l’Eau was her entry in a competition to design cheap holiday lodging held by French architecture magazine L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui. Siting this next to Gehry’s permanent water feature at the Fondation gave it much more presence than when it sat outside a Miami hotel, and I found it impossible not to linger, even in January.

While much of Perriand’s work is on a scale more manageable for exhibition organisers, that cannot be said of the 1960s ski resort, Les Arcs, designed by a group of architects under Perriand’s leadership. A huge model of the various phases of low-rise stepped terraces, nestling into the folds of the mountains, was illuminated in sequence with photographs of each group of competed buildings projected behind it. There were also major displays of Perriand’s photographic investigations into found objects, part of the Art Brut movement, and her period as official advisor on industrial design to the Japanese government, from 1940–1946. There is an English language catalogue and a bilingual book of photographs, with a splendid image of Perriand on the cover: facing away from the camera, she looks out across a magnificent snowy mountain panorama. Stripped naked from the waist up, skis held triumphantly overhead, she exudes the energy and vitality the exhibition successfully captured.


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