Charlotte Perriand's Design Masterpieces

Courtesy Christie’s Images LTD

From industrial-chic chairs to sculptural bookcases, Charlotte Perriand’s modern designs defined an era. Now they're leading the market.

There is a famous photo, taken in 1928, of a young woman reclining in Le Corbusier’s B306 chaise longue. She’s definitely modern—hair bobbed, heels high, dress short (at least by Machine Age standards), her necklace made of industrial ball bearings. It’s Charlotte Perriand, not yet 25 years old and the primary designer of that iconic recliner, which has been in production ever since. She was heavily involved in creating other equally celebrated pieces for Le Corbusier’s Paris studio, including the tubular steel and leather Gran Confort club chair and the B308 glass-top table.

Le Corbusier, the story goes, actually sent the young Perriand away when she came looking for a job, telling her, “We don’t embroider cushions here.” But a short time later, after his cousin Pierre Jeanneret took him to see the chrome and steel bar Perriand had created for the Salon d’Automne, Le Corbusier called her back. She ended up working at the studio for a decade, collaborating with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret (her lover for much of that time) on pieces that came to define the look and philosophy of modernism.

For most designers that would be a career, but for Perriand it was barely a start. In the ’30s her furniture began to shift toward more organic forms and natural materials such as wood and caning. She also teamed up with the artist Fernand Léger on a series of enormous political photomurals for the French government (she was a dedicated leftist). Perriand took up architecture as well, designing prefab housing for workers with Jeanneret and Jean Prouvé. She collaborated with Prouvé again in the ’50s to create furniture for a library and dorms at the University of Paris. Those bookcases, desks and worktables in wood and bent steel—more like Minimalist sculpture than furniture—are now among the most sought-after pieces by both designers. In 2004 one of seven large library tables she and Prouvé designed and executed with the woodworker André Chetaille in 1951 sold at Sotheby’s for $556,800. Just this past December, at the Christie’s sale of New York gallerist Tony DeLorenzo’s private collection, another table from the same set brought $812,500, a record for Perriand.

Demand for important Perriand pieces has grown substantially over the last decade. Thanks in part to several books and high-profile gallery and museum exhibitions, including “Charlotte Perriand: From Photography to Design,” which opens at the Petit Palais in Paris in April (see “The Details”), she’s getting the recognition she always deserved. As Cécile Verdier, head of 20th-century design at Sotheby’s in Paris, notes, Perriand is, along with Eileen Gray, “one of the two ladies of the last century.”

The market for Perriand’s work even held up well during the recent economic downturn. Joshua Holdeman, Christie’s international director of 20th-century decorative arts and design, attributes that partly to her popularity with collectors of postwar art. “It used to be the better the art, the worse the furniture. But that’s not true anymore,” Holdeman says. “Now, people are looking for furniture that has an interesting dialogue with the art around it.”

Perhaps no one has been more active—or more successful—than Paris dealer Patrick Seguin at cross-marketing work by Perriand, Prouvé, Jeanneret and Le Corbusier to contemporary art collectors. He’s done shows at the Gagosian Gallery’s branches in Los Angeles and Paris, at Sonnabend in New York and at Galerie Rodolphe Janssen in Brussels. The appeal of Perriand’s work, Seguin says, lies in “the elegant modern forms combined with her concern for quality materials. There’s a certain poetry in her use of materials that makes each piece special—the tones, the surfaces, the graining of the wood. But it’s also about the functionality of the designs, the beauty of their visual efficiency.”

Other dealers have been similarly crucial in building up Perriand’s market. François Laffanour of Galerie Downtown and Philippe Jousse (Seguin’s former partner) have both been selling her furniture in Paris for some 25 years, alongside that of her most important collaborators. In this country, Tony DeLorenzo may have parted with a big chunk of his personal collection, but his downtown outpost, Delorenzo 1950, still has an impressive range of her work.

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Among the least expensive of Perriand’s designs—and also the area where comparative bargains can be found—are her small pieces of wood furniture. Her tripod stools, produced by Galerie Steph Simon in the ’50s, for example, can be had for less than $3,000. Other pieces, like the Tunisie and Mexique bookcases she designed with Prouvé, tend to go for $45,000 to $90,000, depending on their size. (Perriand’s and Prouvé’s estates are still fighting over credit for work the two did together; Perriand was given primary credit for the bookcases by the French courts in 2010, but Prouvé’s estate has appealed.) The biggest prices, however, are commanded by Perriand’s unique, or nearly so, architectural pieces. Her large Cloud bookcases, for example, typically bring $100,000 to $400,000, sometimes more.

Provenance, as is often the case, is key. With so many editions and different manufacturers involved in Perriand’s work (there have also been issues with authenticity, especially with some of the wood furniture), it’s important to know where a piece comes from. DeLorenzo, who’s been collecting and showing Perriand since the ’80s, says, “Unless I know who the mommy and daddy are, I won’t buy.”

A prime example of how great provenance can help push the price was a 1930 table with an extensible top and wheels that Sotheby’s Paris sold in 2009 for $760,000. The piece was one of a kind and had remained with the family that bought it when it was first exhibited. It was also, Verdier points out, a perfect illustration of Perriand’s philosophy. Despite the table’s present-day cost, when the designer built it, her primary concerns were utilitarian—she was trying to figure out the best way to live in a small space, something she focused on for most of her career. “With this table she was thinking that the dining room is also an office and a kitchen,” Verdier says. “It was a revolutionary way to think about furniture.”

Charlotte Perriand: The Details

On View: Ignored for many years, Perriand’s little-known photographs get the spotlight in a show at the Petit Palais in Paris titled “Charlotte Perriand: From Photography to Design.” Starting in the ’30s, the designer used the camera as a private notebook, shooting found pieces of bone, wood, stone and rusted metal. These simple, reductive images reflect her fascination with shapes and materials. But Perriand also took pictures of landscapes and workers and made political photomurals, all of which are on exhibit from April 7 through September 18.

Essential Reading: Accompanying the exhibition in Paris is Jacques Barsac’s richly illustrated Charlotte Perriand Photography: A Wide-Angle Eye, published by 5 Continents Editions.

Who to Know:
Cécile Verdier, head of 20th-century design, Sotheby’s Paris; 33-1/53-05-53-22; sothebys.com.
Joshua Holdeman, New York–based international director of 20th-century decorative arts and design, Christie’s; 212-636-2240; christies.com.
Patrick Seguin, leading Paris dealer of Perriand’s work; 33-1/47-00-32-35; patrickseguin.com.
François Laffanour, owner of Galerie Downtown in Paris; 33-1/46-33-82-41; galeriedowntown.com.
Philippe Jousse, owner of Jousse Entreprise in Paris; 33-1/53-82-13-60; jousse-entreprise.com.