The Maharaja and Charlotte Perriand

At the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, a remarkable designer gets her due. Across town, at Musée des arts décoratifs, a show of princely riches complicates her legacy.

In May 2018, Sotheby’s in Paris held a record-breaking design auction, the first in Europe where total sales exceeded EUR€10 million. Amongst the star lots was a chaise longue – a drama of chromed-steel tubing clad with leopard skin – that sold for EUR€405,000. The provenance of the chair was illustrious. It had sat, in the company of other hunting trophies, in the bedroom of the last Maharaja of Indore in his modernist palace, Manik Bagh. ‘Young, tall and very elegant,’ was how Man Ray once described Yeshwant Rao Holkar II, whom he photographed together with his teenage Maharani (‘an exquisite girl’) in the late 1920s. He was also fantastically wealthy. The dashing couple mingled in Parisian avant-garde circles of the 1920s and ’30s; seduced by the burgeoning architectural International Style, the pair commissioned a 25-year-old German architect, Eckart Muthesius, a friend of Holkar’s from his studies at Oxford, to bring it to central India. 

Manik Bagh was a Gesamkunstwerk: designed down to the doorknobs and light fittings, and filled with the boldest modern designs from the Parisian salons and design houses. It was completed in 1932. The Maharani died tragically young, in 1937, and the Maharaja remarried, to an American. Manik Bagh was no longer a primary place of dwelling, although the palace and its possessions were maintained by the family after Indore acceded to the newly formed Indian state in 1947. The Maharaja died in 1961. In 1980, after Indira Ghandi had stripped the former rulers of India’s princely states of their final vestiges of Raj-era privilege, the chaise longue was auctioned by Sotheby Park Bernet in Monaco along with a cache of Manik Bagh’s modernist furnishings.

Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand and Pierre Jeanneret, Reclining Chaise Longue, model B306, manufactured by Thonet c. 1931. Courtesy: Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris © Adagp, Paris, 2019; © F.L.C./ Adagp, Paris, 2019; Photo © Sotheby’s / Art Digital Studio

The chaise longue basculante (adjustable chaise longue), to give it its full name, is currently on show at the Musée des art décoratifs as part of the exhibition ‘Modern Maharajah: A Patron of the 1930s’, in Paris. But it is the work of the remarkable Charlotte Perriand, who is being celebrated concurrently, with the largest retrospective of her work to date, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton across town. Perriand is famous – infamous, even – as the young woman who turned up to show her drawings at the studio of Le Corbusier only to be dismissed by the modernist master with the curt response: ‘We don’t embroider cushions here.’ Undeterred, she went on to win him over, scarcely a month later, with her radical design for a bar sous le toit – a compact, metal-furnished cocktail bar under the eaves of her loft apartment – presented at the 1927 Salone d’Automne.

Perriand worked in the studio of Le Corbusier and his cousin and collaborator Pierre Jeanneret until 1937. As designer in charge of l’equipement (furniture and fitting out), she was largely responsible for the studio’s proposal for ‘a modern apartment’, which caused a stir when it was refused by the prestigious but conservative Parisian Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1929. Free plan, partitioned by modular, mirrored storage systems and populated with a collection of chairs and tables made from chromed-steel tubing, the project was displayed instead at the Salone d’Automne later that year. (It is likely there that the Maharaja first saw his chaise longue.) The interior has been recreated 1:1 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, in collaboration with the Italian firm Cassina, who have been licenced to produce the Le Corbusier-Jeanneret-Perriand furniture since the 1960s.

Man Ray, The Maharajah of Indore in evening dress around 1927-1930. Courtesy:  © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Adagp, Paris, 2019 Photo © Pompidou Center, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Guy Carrard

Perriand’s designs – among them the boxy, leather-padded fauteuil grand confort (very comfortable armchair) and chaise longue basculante – have become iconic: synonymous with homes in Architectural Digest and corporate foyers, designs that have spawned a thousand imitations. But we should not let familiarity dull how absolutely, sensationally new they looked in 1929. Compare and contrast the ‘modern apartment’ with the sturdy forms, captured in photographs on display at Musée des Arts Décoratifs, of Jacques-Emile Ruhlman’s ‘ensemble for the bedroom-studio of an Indian crown prince’. Presumably intended for Yeshwant Holkar, this was presented at the same 1929 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs that had refused Perriand & co. This was the Paris of art deco – wood, glass and patterned intricacy; Perriand’s forms were sleek, streamlined, automobile-intoxicated: industrial dreams. ‘METAL plays the same part in furniture as cement has done in architecture,’ she wrote in the British magazine The Studio, in April 1929. ‘IT IS A REVOLUTION.’

In a famous photograph, Perriand reclines in the chaise longue, hair bobbed fashionably short, legs raised so that her skirt falls daringly at her knee. She wears a necklace made out of chromed ball bearings, a string of industrial pearls. She was the revolution. An early member, along with her close, life-long friend Férnand Leger, of the Association des écrivains et artistes révolutionnaires and a committed communist, Perriand believed that industrialization could reorganize society along egalitarian lines. The ‘modern apartment’ furniture was initially conceived for mass production. In the event, however, Thonet (makers of the bent-wood bistro chairs beloved of Parisian cafés), produced just 172 chaises longues between 1930 and 1937, when the rise of Nazism curtailed production. The Maharaja’s is one of these.

Charlotte Perriand, furniture and scenography, Steph Simon gallery, 1956. Courtesy: © Adagp, Paris, 2019 © Gaston Karquel / AChP

Perriand spent most of World War II in Asia. She travelled to Japan in 1940, as the Nazis rolled into Paris (but before Germany, Italy and Japan allied in the Tripartite Pact). As an adviser on industrial design, at the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry, she was to recommend how to put traditional craft to modern ends, with the ultimate aim of creating new products for the country’s conflict-beleaguered export market. Japan, at that point, was an expansionist imperial power – an occupying force in East Asia with designs on the South East. The attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour happened the following year. How did Perriand square her leftist commitments with her instrumentalization by a far-right nationalist regime? We can only speculate. What is clear, however, is that her experience in Japan shaped her thinking for the rest of her life. ‘Japanese traditional art is absolutely modern,’ she wrote in 1941, prefiguring a relationship between Eastern tradition and Western avant-garde that came to the fore not least in postwar US minimalism.

During France’s extensive postwar reconstruction, Perriand worked again with Le Corbusier, designing the interiors for his Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. (Ever condescending, he described her contribution in a letter as ‘This little help [coup de pouce] that you would give our work.’) Amongst her most valuable contributions was the integration of the kitchen and living areas, partitioned by means of a storage unit, which allowed the person (woman) cooking to participate in the social life of the space.

Charlotte Perriand, Chaise Longue Basculante, 1928-29. Courtesy: © F.L.C. / ADAGP, Paris 2019 © ADAGP, Paris 2019 © AChP

The best possible use of the minimum appropriate space for the greatest number of people is one way we could summarize Perriand’s philosophy of living space. Mies van de Rohe’s ‘less is more’, but with an inherent social imperative. Time and again, as the Louis Vuitton retrospective shows, she returns to the idea of a minimum unit of dwelling. The exhibition is impressive, expansive, eye-opening. It’s a thrill to see an important female designer – rare enough amongst the liberated-but-not-quite modernists – finally get her due. But, seen with ‘Modern Maharajah’, something about the show also depresses me. From the vantage point of 2019, it seems an equal inevitability that the palace of Manik Bagh should now house the offices of Indore’s tax commissioner as that Perriand’s Maison au bord de l’eau – designed as an inexpensive, flat-pack weekend house – would first be constructed in 2013, at LVMH’s expense, on Miami Beach, during Art Basel. They were both fantasies. Perriand was designing for a future that never arrived.

Perriand died in 1999, at the age of 96, almost outliving the century whose appearance she helped shape. Unlike her erstwhile collaborators (Corbusier and Jeanneret both died in the mid-1960s), she lived long enough to witness her own institutionalization – for her chairs and tables and shelving units to become museum pieces. In a 1984 interview with The Architectural Review on the eve of her first significant retrospective (coincidentally, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs), she told the architectural historians Martin Meade and Charlotte Ellis: ‘I can’t tell you how much this exhibition has got me down. It has made me go backwards when I want to go forwards, it brings out things I left behind long ago.’ The question remains: What next?

Main image: Eckart Muthesius, retouched exterior view of the Manik Bagh Palace c. 1933 Courtesy: © Collection Vera Muthesius / Adagp, Paris, 2019

Amy Sherlock is deputy editor of frieze and is based in London, UK.

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