Charlotte Perriand et le Japon

The Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art is currently showing a large exhibition on the relationship between French designer and architect Charlotte Perriand.  Does it  have anything to offer the non-French speaking, non-Japanese reading person who didn’t go to design school?

Courtesy of Wikipedia,  I knew three things about the career of  Charlotte Perriand, as I went into the current exhibition at HMOCA about the French designer and architect.

That as a 24 year old, Perriand, although initially brusquely turned down by Le Corbusier, was offered a position at the famous architect’s studio after he saw a snazzy looking bar she had designed made out of chromed steel and anodized aluminium.

That she is best known for designing, along with Le Corbusier himself and Pierre Jeanneret, a series of tubular steel chairs in her first two years at the studio – it is on one of these, the B06 Chaise lounge, that she is pictured in the amazing photograph above.

And, that she spent a bit of time in Japan.

On the first floor of the exhibition, among the letters between Perriand and Japanese colleagues, is a copy of Perriand’s uncompromising modernist manifesto “Wood or Metal?”, published in English in 1929. The two page article exudes excitement about the modern age and its potential to enrich the life of the “NEW MAN”. It was a response to an earlier article criticizing metal furniture. Wood never stood a chance,

“Steel plays the same part in furniture as concrete in has done in architecture. It is a revolution…”


On the same floor, however, are examples of the iconic chaise lounge design, but rendered in bamboo. What happened to this uncompromising dedication to metal as the material of choice when equipping the homes of the “NEW MAN”? In her article “From Tubular Steel to Bamboo: Charlotte Perriand , the Migrating Chaise-longue and Japan” Charlotte Benton suggests that by the mid-1930s Perriand, due to a sharpening of her sense of social commitment and practical difficulties of producing her tubular steel designs on a large scale, was already becoming more pragmatic in her approach to form and materials.

Perriand in Japan

Thus, it was a more flexible Perrinand that arrived in Japan in 1940.  Through an introduction by Junzo Sakakura, with whom she had worked at Le Corbusier’s studio, Perriand was invited by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry as an industrial arts advisor. Her brief was to provide guidance and improve handicrafts for the foreign market. She traveled around the country with future Japanese design icon Sori Yanagi as her guide. Yanagi was the son of the leader of the mingei movement which celebrated and sought to revitalize Japaneses folk crafts which found themselves in crisis in the early decades of the twentieth century. The time the younger Yanagi spent with Perriand was to greatly influence his future work, but it is thought that he may have also had a significant influence on her too.

Perriand provided a keen outsider’s eye, identified on her travels the products she felt would prove popular in overseas markets. She also offered up some of her own designs as models of how western designs could be adapted to Japanese materials, as in the reworking of the chaise-longue design to take into account the different properties of bamboo and wood.

Her aim in Japan was, she said, “to cultivate a critical approach towards the West, not to imitate it slavishly, but to create a modernity within their own ethics.”

In 1941, Perriand produced an exhibition held at the Takashimaya department store in Tokyo entitled “Tradition, Selection, Creation” showcasing her findings and recommendations. However, Japan was about to enter the war and she was forced to leave. Due to the naval blockade, she was forced to live out the rest of the war in Vietnam, unable to return to France until 1946. In her post-war work she combined many of the functional elements of Japanese interiors. These themes recurred for the rest of her career in projects such as the designing ski resorts, the League of Nations building in Geneva, as well as the remodeling of Air France offices in London, Paris and Tokyo. She returned to Japan in 1955 to produce another exhibition in Tokyo. For this, she produced several designs using Japanese materials and techniques, including the The Chaise Ombre and Bibliotheque Nuage.

So, what about the exhibition?

The HMOCA exhibition is on two floors. There are letters between Perriand and her Japanese colleagues, a copy of the “Wood or Metal?” manifesto, photos of her first trip to Japan (with a particular focus on Yamagata in Tohoku), sketches, and examples of the of products that would be eventually included in the Takashimaya exhibition. The basement floor has a large selection of post-war Perriand creations and photos from her 1955 Tokyo exhibition and other projects.

Perriand was undoubtedly a force in the design world and an inspirational woman. However, English explanation is very limited. So, unless you are well versed in her career and already a Perriand fan, it may be rather unsatisfying. French readers may get more out of the letters and notes from her first Japan visit (even more than most Japanese visitors I suspect). The photos are generally snapshots, but the pictures of the young and beautiful Perriand surrounded by bespectacled Japanese designers basking in her vivaciousness are fun. Also, knowing what is in store for Japan over the next few years, the photos of this woman who was soon to be designated an “undesirable alien” as she is spending time in Tokyo, in the countryside houses and skiing in the mountains; has a certain poignancy.

Part of me wonders if the Japan connection isn’t being slightly overdone. There is no doubt that Perriand was influenced by her experiences in Japan, but no mention is made of her studying woodwork and weaving in Vietnam between 1942 and 1946 before she was able to return to France. Flicking through some of photo books kindly on display, it seems that Perriand was a traveler who picked up ideas wherever she went; suggested by the naming of some of her bookshelves the Bibliotheque ‘Tunisie’ and ‘Mexique’.

In the space downstairs are many photos from the 1955 Tokyo exhibition (I loved the pictures of models enjoying the double chaise lounge), lots of examples of Perriand’s post-war designs, along with illustrations of some of their Japanese reference points.

Design geeks will definitely enjoy this section. Perhaps precisely because her influence on contemporary design has been so pervasive, to this neophyte it felt a bit like wandering around a Muji store; except far less beige.

I suspect that the most interesting piece of all may be the film that is showing on a loop just before you leave the exhibition. An elderly, but still clearly passionate Perriand, talks about her work, inspirations and views on the role of design and architecture in our lives and their place in the wider environment. What I could catch from the Japanese subtitles, which speed across the screen as fast as the words coming from her mouth, seem fascinating and I would love to see an English version of the film.

I left HMOCA with a very incomplete picture of Perriand’s relationship with Japan, but also intrigued and wanting to know more. As a result, I’ve spent much of the past week looking for information about Perriand and her work, and have a great appreciation of and respect for a woman who for much of her career was little acknowledged. Perriand fans will find the exhibition well worth ¥1000, and those encountering her for the first time are likely to be fans in the making. You just have to be prepared to do some homework.

Chralotte Perriand Et Le Japon is showing at Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art until March 11. Click here for ticket prices etc.


Paul Walsh

Paul arrived in Hiroshima "for a few months" back in 1996. He is the co-founder of and loves running in the mountains.