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Designer Charlotte Perriand's work transformed rooms. Now it fills a museum

If you ask decorators, architects and other aesthetes to name their favourite modernist, French designer Charlotte Perriand comes up more often than not.

IF you ask decorators, architects and other aesthetes to name their favourite modernist, French designer Charlotte Perriand comes up more often than not.

Ms Perriand lived from 1903 to 1999, nearly spanning the 20th century, and she made the most of her decades, designing buildings, furniture, rooms and objects at an impressive clip. She found a way to match the strict modernist demand for utility and practicality with the elusive quality known as good taste.

Many of her works remain influential reference points today: her colourful Nuage cabinet (imagine a 3D version of a Mondrian painting); the sleek chaise longue she designed with the cousins Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier) and Pierre Jeanneret, which was covered in a chic pony skin; her later collaborations with architect Jean Prouvé; and the lodgings she created in the 1960s and 70s for the Les Arcs ski resort in Savoie, France.

Hers was a big career, and now she is getting an exhibition to match her stature, with 400 works by Ms Perriand and her circle on view at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris from Oct 2 to Feb 24, 2020.

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Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World, the largest exhibition of her work to date, required four years and five curators to organise. It features not only 200 of her own pieces (some of them collaborations) but also works by Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso and other artists, in recognition of her many forays across the art-design divide. Léger, a friend and frequent breakfast companion, is represented by more than 50 contributions alone.

The curatorial committee was made up of the designer's daughter, Pernette Perriand, an architect herself; Ms Perriand's husband, Jacques Barsac, a writer who is the author of his mother-in-law's catalogue raisonné; Sébastien Cherruet, the head of institutional relations at the luxury conglomerate LVMH; and art historians Gladys Fabre and Sébastien Gokalp.

The offerings include not only Ms Perriand's greatest hits — seating and cabinetry from the 1920s to the 1950s — but also black-and-white photographs and an odd surrealist sculpture in stone and wood from 1969 that was a non-functional departure for her.

The exhibition will also recreate nine of her most renowned rooms, including the one that really launched her career in 1929, the Salon d'Automne, named for the annual exhibition where it appeared. It featured chrome-tube furniture in an open plan that was strikingly futuristic at the time.

This room hammers home the theme that Ms Perriand's reputation shouldn't rest solely on her furniture, the most visible part of her legacy.

"She designed spaces, not just the objects in them," Mr Cherruet said.

Ms Perriand has legions of fans, but for the Vuitton Foundation, one of them matters above all: Bernard Arnault, the chairman, chief executive and founder of the museum, and among the richest people in the world.

It is no surprise that in the five years since the Vuitton Foundation opened in a Frank Gehry-designed building in the Bois de Boulogne, there has been much overlap between exhibitions there and Mr Arnault's personal collection, as with last year's blockbuster show on Jean-Michel Basquiat.

"The museum reflects his taste," said Jean-Paul Claverie, a senior adviser to Arnault on the museum and cultural matters. "He was an early collector of Perriand, as he was of Basquiat."

In an email interview, Mr Arnault said that he began collecting Ms Perriand's furniture in the 1980s, beginning with a mahogany buffet from 1960. "I was immediately struck by its precision, authenticity and simplicity, as well as its sheer elegance," he said.

That was just a gateway drug of sorts, leading him next to bookshelves and ultimately to a favourite work.

"The piece I use most often is a free-form table that I use as a desk," Mr Arnault said. "There's a radical symmetry in its silhouette, a softness to the wood that has a natural and sophisticated look." The patina, he added, gets "more beautiful each day."


The exhibition is divided into 11 main sections, one of which details Ms Perriand's long association with architects in Japan.

According to Barsac's Charlotte Perriand: Complete Works, the fourth volume of which will be published in English this fall, she first travelled to Japan in 1940 at the invitation of the government to advise its leaders on industrial art. She stayed until 1942.

Ms Perriand returned several times in the 1950s, at one point redesigning the Air France offices in Tokyo and Osaka. She was particularly inspired by the use of bamboo in Japanese crafts. Junzo Sakakura, an architect with whom she collaborated on the interior of the Japanese ambassador's home in Paris, said that of all the Western architects who worked in Japan, she probably had the most influence on design there.

Also included in the Vuitton show is a late-career project, the Maison de Thé, created in 1993 for the garden of the Unesco headquarters in Paris and highlighting Japanese designers.

That topic is but one of the side roads the exhibition travels. Putting together such a large show had its challenges, said Mr Cherruet, especially the nine room recreations. One of them, Perriand's Maison du Jeune Homme of 1935 incorporated a 12-foot-long Léger work, La salle de culture physique — Le sport, which was painted the same year.

The curators wanted it for the show, so they hunted for it.

"We spent hours trying to find the Léger," Mr Cherruet said. "No one knew where it was."

The work was in the hands of an American collector who hadn't advertised his possession of it "because he didn't want museums asking him to lend it", Mr Cherruet said. The collector changed his mind upon learning that the Léger was not for a normal show, but "for a recreation of a Perriand space", he added.