Objects of inspiration

Never one to scorn the conveniences of the Machine Age, Charlotte Perriand took full advantage of modern transportation options to see the world. What she witnessed on other continents—the crafts, the materials, the flora—had a deep and lasting impact on her design process and philosophy. Often, she would bring along her daughter on what she called these ‘voyages of inspiration’. Pernette Perriand hosted us in what used to be her mother’s Paris apartment to discuss some of the many objects she brought back from her travels. Below are lightly edited excerpts from the conversation.

The giant clam - a polaroid by Charlotte Perriand

The giant clam

‘This one comes from the Great Barrier Reef. Before that, Charlotte had bought a huge one in Sydney, which she had placed on the mantelpiece at home. When we went to the Great Barrier Reef ourselves in 1982, we found this one, in the sand, and she was just overjoyed. She loved those interlocking ridges; that perfect fit between the two halves. She told me, “You see, nature—it can’t be beat.” It’s truly extraordinary. So this one also sits on the mantelpiece now, propped up against the wall, to show how neatly each side fits into the other.’ ‘Charlotte constantly took inspiration from these natural shapes in her work. She loved the internal structure of certain shells, when you can see inside because they’ve been cracked or cut open. She felt it was important to integrate such natural shapes into her own work.’

The plastic bottle vase - a polaroid by Charlotte Perriand

The plastic bottle vase

‘This is the bottom part of a bottle which was cut and split into narrow filaments that were then bent into curls, and now it’s a vase. We found it at an open-air market, near Recife in the North of Brazil. When Charlotte saw it, she said it was the most extraordinary object she’d ever seen, because it’s made from basically nothing. It costs nothing—and yet it’s art.’ ‘Once, in 1998, she was interviewed in Paris, and the journalist asked her to bring the most interesting object in her home. This is what she brought. When she showed that on TV, I have to admit they were all perplexed; nobody understood what she saw in it. But still, to her it was the object that had the most value, because of how ingenious it is. She liked the idea of reusing things—making an ashtray out of a used tin can for instance. Finding a new purpose for things.’

The jacaranda fruit - a polaroid by Charlotte Perriand

The jacaranda fruit

‘This is the fruit of the Jacaranda tree. You can find those everywhere in Brazil. They come in all kinds of shapes. Just as with the giant clam and the other shells she brought back, she was most interested in their inner structure, and vibration, which you can then find in her creations.’ ‘This one we found together. Charlotte had come to Rio to create the furniture for my father’s flat (he was stationed there on official business for the French government), and she came prepared with drawings she had made in Japan, during her exhibition in 1953-55. But when she landed in Rio, she realized it would be impossible to use those, because Brazil is a very different country—very baroque, with lots of lush vegetation. So she decided she needed to get to know this land, and steep herself in it, before she could draw the furniture. And so we went to Northern Brazil. We roamed about for a month, and we brought back plenty of these fruits.’

The little devil- a polaroid by Charlotte Perriand

The little devil

‘From Brazil, we also brought back a handful of little devil statuettes. They are used in Macumba ceremonies. At the top, these are spikes for driving into dolls. Charlotte felt this was extraordinary, and so she brought back a whole collection of such objects. But when we got back to Rio, our cook saw her place them on a bookshelf, and she went into a panic. She was very devout, and she said we couldn’t do that; it would bring bad luck, etc. But Charlotte was unmoved and left them there. For the whole time my father was stationed in Rio, the cook would pass by the statuettes every Friday with burning incense to get rid of their maleficent force.’ ‘In the end, they were brought back to Paris. They inspired the creation of that lamp, you know, where you have a piece of bent iron that supports two hanging Noguchi lanterns, ending in a spike on each side.’ Once again in Charlotte Perriand’s work and process, East meets West.

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‘Everything is linked; the body and the mind; mankind and the world; the earth and the sky.’ 

Charlotte Perriand 
The jacaranda fruit - a polaroid by Charlotte Perriand

The jacaranda fruit

‘This is the fruit of the Jacaranda tree. You can find those everywhere in Brazil. They come in all kinds of shapes. Just as with the giant clam and the other shells she brought back, she was most interested in their inner structure, and vibration, which you can then find in her creations.’ ‘This one we found together. Charlotte had come to Rio to create the furniture for my father’s flat (he was stationed there on official business for the French government), and she came prepared with drawings she had made in Japan, during her exhibition in 1953-55. But when she landed in Rio, she realized it would be impossible to use those, because Brazil is a very different country—very baroque, with lots of lush vegetation. So she decided she needed to get to know this land, and steep herself in it, before she could draw the furniture. And so we went to Northern Brazil. We roamed about for a month, and we brought back plenty of these fruits.’