The art of living by Charlotte Perriand
„Japan seems to be more like the Moon” – said Charlotte Perriand just before stepping into the Land of the Cherry Blossom.
Actually, she was absolutely right. Her stay in Asia for sure bore more resemblance to staying at a different planet than to the humdrum daily routine of a Westerner.
Charlotte Perriand herself was growing up in the times of transformation. Born in 1903 she was getting mature on the brink of vintage and modern, though she would definitely favour the era of steam and steel. Her parents, both haute couture professionals, soon acknowledged the gem of art potential within their daughter. As a result, aided by her mother, Perriand made it to École de L’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, to study mostly interior design and contextualized furniture. Despite overwhelming secession and truly decorative motifs as a mainstream at school, Charlotte was prone to explore more modern and minimalist concepts. She considered industrial revolution a cradle of her interest, was thrilled with feats of modern industrial engineering, construction and simplicity; transparency of glass and modern alloy of traditional materials. Her projects were driven by a strong impact of Le Corbusier, also referred to as ‘the pope of modernism’.
Le Corbu was an icon, a widely reputable name recognized by everyone, even those not strongly connected with arts and culture on daily basis. Perriand was fascinated, since the design concepts by Le Corbusier were catering for all demands of modernity and the new, modernist style, which would trigger Perriand’s imagination. Therefore, two years after graduating, she accomplished her signature project of a modern bar at her very own apartment-studio. She came up with an idea of a wall in-built bar made with steel components, chromium-plated tubular system and glass, bearing zero to none resemblance to the decorative style of secession lectured at school. The concept of her domestic experiment was reconstructed and presented at the Salon d’Automne (the Autumn Salon) in 1927 which enabled her to accomplish one of her dreams – lure the attention of Le Corbusier. Although, they had a prior brief encounter just before the event: in anticipation of the Autumn Salon, Perriand applied for a job at the architect’s atelier, yet was turned down with a well-known phrase: „We do not embroider cushions here”, stigmatizing both her academic background and gender. Le Corbu, however, changed his mind having seen her zinc-and-steel bar installation captivating Paris, which resulted in an apprenticeship at her master’s studio at the age of 24 only.
Working along Corbusier resulted in creation of iconic and universal projects, still being sold, just to mention LC1 armchair, heavy, office LC2 and LC3, as well as a chaise long LC4, also referred to as the „leisure machinery”. Regardless, Perriand did not feel fully accomplished working to build a personal brand of her master, after all. Her personality was outshadowed by the reputation of Le Corbu, which prevented the full development of Perriand’s potential. After barely a decade of working together, the artist would step down from Le Corbusier’s studio, in order to, as she would insist: „Step out of his shadow and move forward with her own career”. Fortunately, she had a prospect of a new collaboration, which came as a surprise to Perriand herself. Although, she was confident and audacious, Perriand could not have been prepared to what the overwhelming Tokyo had to offer.
In order to fully understand her incentives and what had driven her to work and stay in Japan, and what was her work core, let’s reach back in time to the late 19th century.
The 1939 marked a 70th anniversary since Japan opened to the outer world. Due to the impact of American Navy, Shogunat Tokugawa, the regime in chargé for the past 250 years unstoppably, decided to open the borders with the West. It is a groundbreaking moment resulting in a number of changes in almost each and every area – to begin with politics (restoring the emperor’s power), through the education reforms, or even the cultural revolution. The globe was instantly infected with Japanese frenzy, with people excited to see the secluded country far from civilization, that had been fantasized about for years. Both Europeans and Americans swarmed Tokyo, seeking inspiration among Lacquerware, woodcut relief printing and silk kimonos. Unfortunately, what the Western civilization found most appealing, the newly appointed Meiji government treated as drab and appalling. Thus a paradox – one angle with the emperor’s decree imposing the society to adopt Western style, and banning the proliferation of traditional forms of culture, while on the other angle – the very tradition and unique culture were luring magnets for the visitors.
Invited to Japan just before the war, Perriand received a cable from the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry on the 8th February, 1940. The official invitation was followed by an amazing letter, over 8 metres long and calligraphed by Shiko Murakata, one of the most illustrious Japanese artist back then. Perriand was praised for her expertise and insights, thus offered a job of a consultant to enhance the demand on Japanese design sold in the West. Her objective was to come up with design concepts of furniture and objects to adhere to both the concept of modernism, and the traditional aspects of the Land of the Cherry Blossom. On the one hand, terrified with the ongoing war in Europe, the artist would soon become so excited with the unusual offer so as to contribute to and support the Japanese economy and culture. While in Japan, she deepened her knowledge about the traditional handcraft of Japan. Subsequently, the experience and know-how on how to work with wood facilitated her further career. Not solely did she discover the properties of the traditionally used materials, such as bamboo, rattan or other kinds of wood, but also gained insights on the Japanese lifestyle and philosophy. Despite unbridled economic and cultural development and progress, which followed opening the borders, the 40s. still preserved the majority of Japan abiding by the traditional lifestyle. Contrary to the European mainstream, overwhelmed with all possible decorative motifs, the houses and design ideas of the Land of Cherry Blossom were screaming with emptiness, which Perriand experienced in Japanese households. Frugality or even ‘lack of staff’, unrelated to poverty, yet stemming mainly from the aesthetic preferences and the effect of a strong impact of zen buddism. „While in Japan, 100% traditional at the time, I unraveled the mystery of emptiness, its power, its cult, the emptiness which is not void. The Japanese people experience emptiness as a key to mobility. Emptiness contains it all.”
It took Perriand 4 months to travel across the country with an interpreter, to learn the mysteries of traditional craft and lifestyle of the residents, so different from the European pattern. The architect would interview a number of craftsman, not solely to find out how they work, but also to learn about their inspiration, what is a determining factor for their work. As would often turn out, too tight bond with traditional techniques was so restraining for the craftsman that would kill their creative potential. Thus, the Japanese journey was reciprocally inspirational. Her objective was not just to create rigid manuals concerning design, but first of all – to understand the culture, techniques and policies that governed Japan at the time. She showcased impeccable sensitivity, while intending to understand each and every aspect of the Japanese daily routine and lifestyle, yet becoming an inspiration for the local craftsmen to seek applicable technologies and aesthetic solutions to facilitate their work. „I aimed at restoring the feeling of empowerment to the craftsmen, who were overzealously focused on their traditions or restrained in the pattern of recreating the non-living objects, copied based on publication (…)”.
Perriand left Japan in winter 1942, infatuated with the country despite its contradictions and would return to Japan on numerous occasions. In 1993 she designed a teahouse in Tokyo, for her friend and ikebana master, Hiroshi Teshigehara. Design was inspired by the reading of ‘The book of tea’, a handbook and guide for those interested in the complex and immensely poetic world of the tea-infusion ceremony. Perriand was very sentimental and nostalgic about the traditional craftsmanship, which largely inspired some contemporary brands, such as Aesop, the Australian beauty brand, known for its unique style and natural-ingredient formulas.
Rōzu is the 4th in line of fragrances launched by the brand. The name of the Eau the toilette means ‘Rose’ in Japanese, but not as a tribute to the flower, but a feminine name. The fragrance itself was inspired by the life of Perriand and her enduring affection for the Land of Cherry Blossom. The name itself and the opening notes allude to the roses created in her honour, notes of vetiver extract, patchouli and myrrh recall the men’s colognes she wore regularly, while the vibrant shiso references the bracing alpine peaks she explored at every opportunity. The Aesop experts worked closely with the Perriand family during the development of “Rōzu”. Aided by the artist’s daughter they were able to create a multifaceted scent, which is both adamant and subtle. The dualism and bridging contradictions was also supposed to refer to the complex character of Charlotte Perriand herself, to embody her strength, non-conformism, boldness with sensitivity and empathy. “Rōzu” showcases that now and then may remain intertwined, that the individual experience might inspire the future adherents. Moreover, the signature design of Aesop products aims at retracing pure, modernist forms; Perriand would probably approve of the fact that the scent is housed by a minimalist bronze-glass perfume bottle, which reminds her of the ‘Land, which cherished emptiness’.