Charlotte Perriand and Japan: A Love Affair Blossoms
“Everything is linked, the body and the mind; mankind and the world; the earth and the sky.”Charlotte Perriand
Charlotte Perriand can perhaps be best remembered as a symbol of the power of collaboration, adaptability, consultation and exploration in design. In her work and her life, she explored the connections with international cultures, and our relationship to nature and the environment. The issues she addressed are the same issues that artists are grappling with and expressing through art today.
A woman unafraid of the unknown, she explored Japan and its design principles against the terrifying backdrop of World War Two. It was a daring move, she had an established career and had collaborated with Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret for over a decade. Their work was considered ground-breaking and many of their furniture designs have become 20th-century classics: the cube-shaped Grand Confort armchair, the LC4 chaise longue, and the leather swivel chair.
But, Perriand chose adventure and on the 15th of June 1940, she boarded the Hakusan Maru from Marseille to Kobé. “At that time, Japan was like the Moon,” she declared. But it was not her first encounter with Japanese culture. Whilst still working in Le Corbusier’s studio in 1934, she met Japanese architect Junzo Sakakura and a strong friendship formed. It was with both his and Sori Yanagi’s recommendation that she was invited by the Japanese Ministry of Commerce and Industry/Department of Trade Promotion to serve as an advisor to grow Japan’s furniture exports. And so started a love affair with Japan, one that would be a part of her design life for the next 50 years.
“I like being alone when I visit a country or historic site. I like being bathed in its atmosphere, feeling in direct contact with the place without the intrusion of a third party.”Charlotte Perriand
Part of Charlotte Perriand’s success in Japan hinged on her ability to immerse herself into Japanese culture. She was concerned with how people lived and spent months exploring cities like Tokyo and Osaka and venturing into the rural parts of Japan to better understand Japanese practices and traditions. She was faced with a myriad of fascinating contradictions – hand-crafted vs. mass-produced, tradition vs modernity. She also learned the beauty in emptiness.
The power of emptiness, the religion of emptiness, fundamentally, which is not nothingness. It represents the possibility of moving. Emptiness contains everything”. It was through this immersion that she was able to see the value in the functionality, practicality, economy, and honesty of Japanese design.Charlotte Perriand
In 1941 she held an exhibition entitled, “Selection, Tradition, Creation”, which symbolized the merging of modernization and Japanese tradition for European consumption. Creations by unknown artists were celebrated alongside designs by masters in the field of design. The designs were to be created using only local materials and techniques and Perriand embraced wood and bamboo in her creations. The re-imagined LC4 chaise longue gained particular attention. However, Perriand was not without critics, and Japanese philosopher, Soetsu Yanagi, and artist-craftsman Shoji Hamada commented on what they deemed to be an”uneducated” selection of crafts and her “enchantment” with bamboo.
The 1941 exhibition would be just the beginning of Perriand’s relationship with Japan. In 1953 she would go on to remodel Air France’s Tokyo offices and in 1955 she held another exhibition entitled, “Synthesis of the Arts”. It was here that her much revered Nuage bookshelf was first revealed. The inspiration behind this design came from her 1940 visit to Kyoto’s Katsura Imperial Villa, where she became fascinated by the shelves,
They were arranged on the walls, in the form of a cloud, a free form that gives rhythm to space and enhances the objects it supports.Charlotte Perriand
“Architecture is an ebb and flow between interior and exterior—a round-trip.”Charlotte Perriand
Perriand’s experience in Paris also led to architectural work. She designed an apartment for Jacques Martin, CEO of Air France in Tokyo, and she worked on the homes of the Japanese ambassador and the Japanese textile designer, Tadao Matsui, in Paris. Her final architectural work culminated in a commission by her friend Hiroshi Teshigaharato to design a Teahouse to be part of the Japanese Cultural Festival held in Paris in 1993. She used the traditional materials of wood and bamboo, natural elements like stones and water and her knowledge on Japanese culture to offer a proposal that encompassed the peaceful, sanctuary-like atmosphere of a tea ceremony. Periand also designed the furniture, including the tokonoma (the altar of the gods and ancestors) and the mizuya (the place where the utensils are stored).
“Everything changes so quickly, and what is state-of-the-art one moment won’t be the next. Adaptation has to be ongoing – we have to know and accept this. These are transient times.”Charlotte Perriand
Charlotte Perriand’s deep respect for Japan and its design principles would have a lasting influence on her career and she referred often to the ideas of simplicity found in Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea. She took a leap of faith by boarding that ship to Japan in 1940 and and immersing herself into a new and foreign culture. This spirit of adventure would remain with her as she delved widely into photography, furniture design, architecture and art, well into her 90s. An icon of 20th century design, there was nothing transient about Charlotte Perriand.
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