When a designer is as celebrated as Charlotte Perriand, and her original designs are increasingly hot property 20 years after her death, a previously unknown work coming to auction is a major event.
At Sotheby’s in Paris on 17 December, four Perriand pieces that have never been seen before in public will go under the hammer, marking this out as a dramatic design sale to finish off the year.
One lot, the Eventail table with “leaves” that fan out from a three-legged base, has already been given a heady €700,000-€1m estimate (£635,000 – £910,000), but it’s likely to sell for a great deal more. You can follow the live sale on Sotheby’s website.
“We still have the prototype of that table in our house in Meribel,” says Pernette Perriand, Charlotte’s daughter, who with her husband Jacques Barsac looks after her mother’s legacy. “But ours was in pine. My mother didn’t intend to make another one, until this person specifically requested it. She must have believed in the architectural project – that was how she worked.”
Instead of pine, the client, a major medical scientist and researcher, asked for the table be made in African dibetu, a luxurious golden brown wood streaked with black veins. “It’s a masterpiece,” says Florent Jeanniard, who is running the Sotheby’s sale.
“It could be Art Deco, or from a few years ago. It really is timeless. And apart from that, it’s a unique, unpublished piece with perfect provenance.” Commissioned in the early 1970s, the table – along with a set of ten chairs, a sideboard and two day beds also by Perriand – has never left its only home outside Toulouse – a super modern space designed by architect Pierre Debeaux.
Charlotte Perriand’s career pretty much spanned the 20th century. By the age of 24, in 1927, she was working as an interior designer alongside Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. “She had a very strong personality,” says Pernette, when I ask her how her mother managed to make her mark in this male-dominated world. “And she believed in technique and skill. She always stayed one step ahead of the men around her.”
By the early 1930s, she was already experimenting with pre-fabricated buildings for the leisure market, and by 1940, she had gone to Japan as the official advisor on industrial design to the Japanese government. This experience, and further travels in Asia, also brought her a whole new realm of design possibilities – working with bamboo, introducing woven panels into furniture and spaces, and ideas of lightness and flexibility that surpassed western norms.
She also met her second husband there, an Air France executive called Jacques Martin, and Pernette was born in Vietnam in 1944.
Perriand’s interior designs did away with divisions between rooms – at Corbusier’s famous Unite d’Habitation in Marseille, completed in 1952, she had intentionally made the kitchen part of the living space to stop women being locked away as they carried out their domestic duties. When she decided that her male peers – including Le Corbusier and Mallet-Stevens – were overly obsessed with the language of mechanisation, she turned to wood to soften the modernist blow.
By the 1970s, she was developing ingenious bathroom pods in fibreglass – containing the most up-to-date equipment – that could be made off-site and installed cheaply and in huge numbers. They found their way to the ski station at Les Arcs, designed to accommodate up to 30,000 visitors at a time.
It is her furniture, however, that has proved to be her most enduring legacy. The Italian firm Cassina still produces re-editions of 17 of her designs, including the Grand Confort. The cube-shaped armchair, with big leather cushions held in a shiny chrome cage, is one of the most iconic designs of the mid-20th century.
Meanwhile the collector market for original pieces has grown steadily since the end of the 1980s. Bernard Arnault, the chairman and chief executive of LVMH, started back then, with a mahogany buffet from 1960. “I was struck by its precision, authenticity and simplicity,” he once said.
Last year, perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a major exhibition dedicated to Perriand and her world at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. It positioned the designer at the centre of the group of artists, including Picasso and Fernand Léger, who left an indelible mark on western culture.
Pernette Perriand is hoping that on 17 December the Eventail table is acquired by a museum, or by a collector who is willing to loan it to public display. “It’s amazing that it’s been brought out of hiding,” she says. Who knows, we might even get to see it at the Design Museum in London which is staging its own Charlotte Perriand exhibition next March.
Follow the live auction of Charlotte Perriand’s work on 17 December at sothebys.com
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