Girl With a Chrome Necklace: Charlotte Perriand's Art of Living
Useful Forms is too modest a title for the Charlotte Perriand exhibit, which will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through July 11. That the six pieces of furniture displayed here are useful goes without saying. More important, these forms transcend the merely useful; otherwise they wouldn't be worth displaying in an art museum.
Ms. Perriand herself provides more expressive terms in the titles of two articles she wrote for the magazine Techniques et Architecture: "The Art of Dwelling" ("L'Art d'Habiter") and "Ambiance." Her goal, she wrote, was to start designing "so that we might successfully accomodate our smallest everyday gestures, repeated 365 days a year. Dwellings are made by such gestures, which are dictated by our needs." Such language suggests a designer concerned as much with the character of a room as with its functionality; no wonder, then, that each of the pieces on display offers something more than a functional identity. Should you be fortunate enough to own or work on a Perriand desk or library table, you would appreciate its uniqueness in effect, its character.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that character is action. He was speaking, of course, from the point of view of a writer creating fictional beings. In Ms. Perriand's creations action is character, as suggested not only in the work but in the story behind it, which is told in the excellent catalogue accompanying the show. First, there is the self-portrait reproduced on the cover. A work of art in itself, haunted by the artist's shadow, the photograph reflects the qualities of beauty, form, elegance, and suggestiveness that distinguish the aesthetic from the merely useful. Recumbent in the chaise longue she co-designed with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret (an object no less contemporary in 2004 than it was in 1930 when the picture was taken), the young designer has turned her face seductively away from us, her neatly cropped black hair blending with the cushion, the folds of her skirt falling just so, the simple, yet elegant black shoes like an extension of the chaise, showing the same gleam of light as the black cushion at the other end. The subtly erotic beauty embodied in the female form brings out the beauty of the chaise's design. Look closely and you can see the chrome ball-bearing necklace she was known to wear as a reflection of her fascination with metal as a design element.
Guest curator Jennifer King's excellent catalogue commentary provides several examples of Perriand's character in action. Think of the girl with the ball-bearing necklace, in Paris, in her twenties, being patronizingly rebuffed by LeCorbusier when she seeks employment ("We don't embroider cushions in my studio"), and then boldly inviting him to see her attic corner room, with its semi-circular built-in bar, bar stools and table, everything, including the wainscoting, lined with chrome. Not long after the visit, she was hired by Le Corbusier as his official furniture designer.
Another element of her character was her idealism. For all her excitement about using metal (she saw its potential as revolutionary), the designer's "left-leaning politics" subsequently led her to do most of her work in wood because metal made furniture "expensive to produce and therefore unaffordable to all but the wealthy elite."
Unlike the bent-metal chaise longue in the catalogue cover photograph, the rosewood chaise on display at the museum can be folded into different configurations and shows the influence of Japanese design absorbed during a trip to Japan in 1940-41. Its rich tones suggest that Ms. Perriand's reasons for eventually choosing to work in wood had as much to do with aesthetics as politics. Still, it is clear from the facts provided by the catalogue that she was as at home in department stores as in museums. As a student she had trained with the heads of the design studios of the Galeries Lafayette and the Bon Marché. Later in her career she also developed, in Jennifer King's words, "professional attachments" to Japan (reflected in the rosewood chaise) and the Alps, where she enjoyed a self-imposed exile and designed her own mountain retreat. The rustic Alpine look is apparent in the freeform desk and three-legged wooden stool, both on display in the "Useful Forms" exhibit.
When you enter the Princeton Art Museum, the first work that attracts your attention is an immense canvas by Frank Stella (Princeton '58), River of Ponds II. In the same room is an untitled construction by Donald Judd that must be 20 feet high, consisting of ten copper rectangles with green-tinted plexiglass covers in a stacked arrangement, with equal space between each. Down from the Stella are two Andy Warhol silkscreens of Jackie Kennedy and one of Marilyn Monroe that faces Warhol's giant Brillo box. Whatever you may think of these pieces individually, the character of the room offers a more sylistically compatible approach to the work of Ms. Perriand than the museum's more traditional rooms. At a Richardson Hall symposium on Beauty in 20th-century art this past Friday, Frank Stella recited a list of "non-art" forms he thought should be relegated to some other venue than the art museum. According to his criteria, Ms. Perriand's work does not belong in the same building. Nor does Warhol's work, for that matter.
Few visitors to the museum are likely to agree. In fact, Stella's bright, interlocking geometric shapes would look great on a wall in the same room with Charlotte Perriand's freeform furniture.
Be sure to look at the miniatures of Charlotte Perriand's furniture in the shop, which also has copies of Mary McLeod's handsome book, Charlotte Perriand: An Art of Living.
The museum's extraordinarily rich and varied collection is always worth a visit. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free.