A lesser woman might have given up—but not Charlotte Perriand. In 1927, two years after graduating from the École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, in Paris, the 24-year-old Perriand was invited to exhibit her work at the prestigious Salon d’Automne. Eager to make the most of her coup, she arranged a meeting with the influential modernist architect Le Corbusier. Perriand arrived at his Paris studio with high hopes that, if he saw her drawings, he would offer her a job.
“The austere office was somewhat intimidating, and his greeting rather frosty,” Perriand wrote in her memoirs. “ ‘What do you want?’ he asked, his eyes hooded by glasses. ‘To work with you.’ He glanced quickly through my drawings. ‘We don’t embroider cushions here,’ he replied, and showed me the door.”
Perriand was not the first—and by no means the last—gifted and ambitious young woman to be dismissed so contemptuously by the alpha males who dominated architecture and design in the 1920s. But when she returned to the Salon d’Automne the next day, a friend explained that, after her visit, Le Corbusier and his cousin and collaborator, Pierre Jeanneret, had been to see her stand: a reconstruction of the dining area she had designed in a utilitarian, modern style for her tiny attic apartment on place Saint-Sulpice. They were so impressed that they invited her to join their studio as an interior designer.
Perriand spent the next decade working for Le Corbusier. During that time, she was chiefly responsible for the design of what became some of the most famous furniture—or l’équipement intérieur, as she called it—of the 20th century. Among her contributions are the boxy club chairs with plump leather cushions framed in chromed tubular steel that still furnish corporate foyers all over the world, and the sleek leather-clad chaise longues that often accompany them. You may even have seen a 1929 photograph taken by Jeanneret of a young woman lying on that same chaise longue, with fashionably bobbed hair, a daringly short skirt, and a necklace made from industrial ball bearings—that’s Perriand.