Obituary: Charlotte Perriand

UNE VIE de Creation - "A Life of Creation" - is the title of the great designer Charlotte Perriand's autobiography published last year, a book as exuberant, full of the joys of living, as the author herself. She was one of humanity's outstanding energisers, a true creator of new forms, new materials, and a pioneer in the use of industrial materials to achieve graceful, forceful and very witty works to benefit our everyday existence with their sly charm and mischievous misappropriation of unexpected forms and fabrics in utterly appropriate ways.

All this was revealed to the general British public at a magnificent 1996 retrospective of her work held in the Design Museum in London. It was amusing to see how her minimalist geometries could produce such satisfying results.

Perriand was a special kind of creator, a life-enhancer who through her art and craft was determined to reveal new ways of living, based on simplicity and compactness of forms that were never utilitarian. One of her most admired works was a rocking-chair chaise-longue of tubular steel, a finely balanced construction I felt might be more comfortable to look at than to recline upon. It reminded me at once of Pope's line in The Dunciad: "Stretched on the rack of a too-easy chair . . ." But in later years I had a chance to test the object in a version she had made in bamboo and found its curves and texture so seductive, I had difficulty in not succumbing to sleep in its wave-like undulations. The original was made in 1928, long before Charles Eames in 1956 created his "Rocking Armchair Rod", a lounge chair with a steel rod frame commissioned by Billy Wilder.

The Perriand chair was created with the help of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, collaborators, friends and teachers all possessed by Perriand's artistic idealism with its down-to-earth practicality. The chief inspirer at the beginning was Le Corbusier ("Le Corbu" as she refers to him in her book), the Swiss- born innovative architect celebrated for his "modular construction" techniques applied most brilliantly to "La Ville radieuse" apartments in Marseille.

Perriand came to his attention when in 1927 she exhibited a cocktail bar she had constructed for her small attic flat on the square facing St Sulpice. She went to see Le Corbu with her portfolio, and his first words when he saw her were: "We don't go in for designing cushions here." Then he saw the precision and beauty of her sketches of buildings and furniture, and he hired her on the spot to design furniture that used materials not popular in those days - fine woods, hand-made papers, metal plates and tubes. Perriand complemented that rather stark vision of domestic comfort by designing her own necklace made from polished steel ball-bearings. "I didn't want to imitate the Queen's regalia or the Crown Jewels," she said.

In 1929, Charlotte was a founder member of the very left-wing UAM ("Union des Artistes Modernes"). Another leading member was the painter Fernand Leger, who became a lifelong friend and fellow worker. Robert Mallet-Stevens became its first president. He advocated a "functionalism" in French architecture and a street of his houses in Paris has been named after him. But he was considered too rigid a formalist, and eventually resigned.

He disapproved of the rather wild goings-on of the group, usually egged on by Perriand. On the occasion of a meeting with Gropius and the Bauhaus group, she startled the German cultural envoy by imitating a performing seal: she kept leaping on top of trash boxes and waving her hands with an idiotically blissful otarine expression on her pretty face, and clapping her "fins" at everything he said.

She had been a girl who didn't like playing with dolls: she preferred to pull off their wigs and extract their fascinating counterbalanced glass eyes - she later used them as jewellery. She was a good swimmer and adored jumping into lakes with no clothes on. A charming photograph in her book shows her baring her magnificent breasts to the rising sun in the mountains where she was a good climber and walker.

She loved mankind, especially the male variety. She describes with great enthusiasm the naked beauty of Indian luggage-bearers invading the ship on which she was travelling to Japan. Another photograph shows her with a hilarious group of sake-primed Japanese students in Sendai. They are all wearing a local hot spring inn's yukata and tanzen - a sort of light cotton kimono with a quilted jacket - and she is the only female in eight, enjoying every minute. About 20 years later, when I first started teaching in Sendai, Charlotte Perriand was still remembered there with rapture, and hers was the first "famous foreigner's" name mentioned, a long way after other notables like Edmund Blunden, George Barker and Ralph Hodgson - all local legends.

Perriand learned much from Japan - the use of sliding doors, arrangements of wall-hung cupboards, foldaway furniture to save space in the normally exiguous Japanese home, and the playful sense of the lightness of everything that allowed the transformation of a crowded living room into an empty matted space.

Her most striking tribute to the Japanese art of living can be found in Paris, in the garden of the Unesco headquarters - an exquisitely re- invented Japanese tea ceremony house which, despite its contemporary interpretation of a classic Japanese cultural symbol, preserves the special feeling of soul- refreshment associated with traditional tea houses. Her spirit will haunt this place, and her laughing face topped by short white hair drawn up into her interpretation of the sumo wrestler's topknot.

On the outer wall is some large calligraphy by the cinematographer Hiroshi Teshigahara which means "taking flight". A fitting image for her - a creator on the move.

Charlotte Perriand, designer: born Paris 24 October 1903; married 1943 Jacques Martin (one daughter); died Paris 27 October 1999.

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