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Japan 194041: Imprint and resonance in Charlotte Perriands designs
Irne Vogel Chevroulet
Architecture School Lausanne
Yasushi Zenno
University of Tokyo March 2007

A visual experience is never free of thought, and a sight will not make sense to us unless it is
framed by a context `the echo of a thought in sight`one would like to say.
L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, Oxford, 1958

France before departure to Japan
In 1929, Charlotte Perriand had been working as interior designer for a year at the atelier of
Charles Edouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier. She was learning architecture there
when the Japanese architect Kunio Maekawa joined them as a collaborator for two years.
Corbusier hired another Japanese architect, Junzo Sakakura, from 1931 to 1936, whose
friendship with Perriand became the cause of her first stay in Japan from August 1940 until
December 1942. The Japanese governments official wanted Le Corbusier himself to come,
but followed Sakakuras proposal and invited Perriand as consultant in industrial design. Her
mission at the department of Trade and Promotion of the Imperial Ministry of Commerce
and Industry was to orient the thinking of industrial designers toward the production of
furniture and household items to be exported to the West. The German architect Bruno Taut
had occupied this post between 1933 and 1935.

Until the 30s, most occidental architects got acquainted with Japanese architecture only
through publications such as: LArchitecture au Japon (R. Mallet Stevens, 1911);
Architecture nouvelle au Japon (B. Taut, LArchitecture dAujourdhui, Avr. 1935); Une
habitation japonaise (B. Taut, LArchitecture dAujourdhui, Jan. 1937); Houses and
people of Japan (B. Taut, 1937, a precious ethnography of Japanese life and architecture);
Das Japanische Wohnhaus (T. Yoshida, 1935, a thorough study of the Japanese traditional
house), and The lesson of Japanese architecture (J. Harada, 1936, which compared the
Japanese dwelling to the Western one). It is not possible yet to acknowledge to what extent
these articles and books were used by the Atelier de Svress collaborators
. Sakakura
offered to Perriand a copy of Kakuzo Okakuras Book of Tea (Tokyo, 1906), which she read
during her trip to Japan. This book on the spirit of Japanese tea culture is a synthesis of Zen
philosophy and principles such as emptiness and uncompleteness leading to asymmetry; it
also included suggested sources for Japanese arts and architecture.

Perriands notes and writings about Japan
In August 1940, Sakakura welcomed Perriand to Kobe. Traveling with her throughout
Japan were Mrs. Mikami, her translator, and Sori Yanagi, son of Soetsu, founder of the
Mingei (folk crafts) movement that advocated support for traditional arts. Perriand
represented A. Blocs magazine Architecture dAujourdhui and C. Zervoss Cahiers dArt.
Documents from parts of her stay probably disappeared
during her exile to Indochina from
December 1942 to February 1946, but three notebooks reveal her constant concern to write

There are no proofs yet. These books are not in Le Corbusiers personal library but they might have circulated.
A. Dercelles, Bibliothque personnelle de Le Corbusier, in Le Corbusier et le livre, catalogue de lExposition, Collectif
darchitectes de Catalogne, Barcelone 2005
Authors interview with Perriands daughter, Paris 2006
down her observations on Japanese art and Japans way of life. The first brown notebook in
linen runs from 5 September to 21

November 1940. Perriand stayed at the Tokyo Imperial
Hotel and at first busied herself discovering Japanese arts and visiting factories and
workshops. She spent a few days in Kyoto at the end of September during which the
quintessence of traditional imperial architecture was revealed to her, which is the subject of
this article.

A second notebook dates from the summer of 1941 and briefly mentions the following
topics: premises of her articles in France, the standard Japanese modern house, storage units
manufacture, and a culture and society impregnated by Buddhism hence limiting basic
needs, and Japanese temporality. Perriand cites the N theatre, where one hour of
immobility is the condition for a fulgurating action, a flash in an unforeseen moment. Of
this, Perriand comments: Cest tout le Japon. In all her notes, she reveals her subtle
understanding of Japanese culture and her sensitivity to more abstract differences such as
temporality. A third smaller notebook, without date, questions the house designed without
an architect and its equipment (windows, various spatial divisions) sold at close by shops;
the survival of the tatami that Perriand foresees for leisure.
These five architectural visits are somehow peculiar, as she mostly visited workshops and
traditional and rural dwellings. Perriand was a creator and she demonstrated her capacities
by achieving in a very short time the exhibition Selection Tradition Creation with Sakakura
in April 1941, at Takishimaya, theTokyo department store
. She went back to Japan in 1953
and organized another exhibition, Synthse des Arts Paris 1955 Le Corbusier Lger and

For a complete view of the exhibitions issues and stakes, see Y. Zenno, Fortuitous encouters, Charlotte Perriand in
Japan, 1940 41 in Charlotte Perriand, an art of living, M. McLeod, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2003

traveled later regularly to Japan. Perriand wrote of her experience of Japan in ten articles
published from 1946 to 1957 and in her autobiography in 1998
Autumn 1940 in Kyoto: five architectural visits
As part of their task to show their country to European architects invited by the government,
Japanese architects carefully selected the most accomplished architectural sites and gardens:
the Imperial Palace with its typically Chinese symmetry, which was rebuilt in the late 19th
century and represents the Japanese style shinden-zukuri; Imperial Villas and dry gardens of
the 15th-17th centuries are representatives of the apogee of Japanese architecture and
integrated interior equipment in shoin and sukiya-zukuri style inspired by Zen in the search
of proportions tinted by a delicate asymmetry. Numerous furniture sketches following
Perriands visits reveal to what extent Japanese spaces stimulated her creativity.

Ryoanji gardens suggestion and abstraction spell
On 29 September, Perriands first words mention the Ryoanji zen garden. She later
described her impression in her 1998 biography, deepened by a second visit: The bareness
and beauty of these Zen gardens made of a stone and waters throw, or of immaculate white
sand spaces, carefully raked, from where 15 stones and rocks merge, whose disposition itself
is an abstraction which invites to meditation like the famous Ryoanji, conceived in 1490.
There in 1953, I saw young students in contemplation, lost in the infinity of their being. We
hear what was not spoken, we contemplate the invisible. A revelation to me. This garden
constitutes, according to Perriands words in the 1941 exhibition catalogue: a reference of
the highest refinement. She created for this occasion a ground in raked white sand plates,
easily realizable, connecting her proposals for furniture sets.

C. Perriand, Une vie de cration, Odile Jacob, Paris, 1998

Court architecture `in modern' at the Imperial Palace
On Tuesday morning 1 October, Perriand devoted seven pages to the Shishinden, the large
reception hall (1894) and to the Seiryoden, the residential spaces of the Imperial Palace.
Taut had already described in 1933, its grandeur, in the beautiful simple walls of its
courtyard, in the straight-lined stone bordering of its water courses, in its corridors as well as
in the magnificent simplicity of its enthronement-hall.

Seyriodens corridor Palaces interior court
Photo R. T. Paine, A. Soper, 1955 Photo A. Drexler, 1955
Perriand begins: Moderns here can easily go on with tradition--one finds our principles.
Thus she confirmed the affinity between "modern" with the Western roots and "Japanese
tradition," which was most convincingly demonstrated by Sakakura in the form of his
Japanese pavilion built for 1937 Paris Expo. She draws the plan and the cut of the reception
hall and observes the natural wood framework, the raised ground, the modularity based on
the tatami mat, all rooms communicating (including with the interior court ones), the

B. Taut, Houses and people of Japan, Sanseido, Tokyo, 1937, p. 147
elevations mobile elements, the swiveling or upward moving door, the hard wood smooth
ground and the horizontal window. At the Seyrioden, she sketches the emperors room and
describes many decorative details and specifies: Hence, purely decorative elements limited
to whole frontages, fullor in the galleries, to painted doors or tatami borders but bare
white painted wood structure.

Shishinden reception hall south veranda

Sketch C. Perriand, 1940

Photo R. T. Paine, A. Soper, 1955

Perriand ends by a summary, useful this time to the occident perhaps, since she does not
mention any more tatamis, but adds the modular height of doors of 1.85m. She thinks about
alternatives to two devices by registering IN MODERN in the margin. Firstly, the folding
screen limiting passages can be replaced by pieces of furniture with storage units but that are
careful to compose their front and back (Japanese traditional units furniture only present
one face
). Secondly, the natural or decorated blinds placed in front of windows remove the
black of the evening and can be sliding tapestries, fabrics, wood or paintings.

In her later writings Perriand will refer to the Imperial Palace only one time, to the contrary
of Katsura, Shugakuin and Ryoanji, which will frequently illustrate her concept of ideal
dwelling and the potential of her suggestion principle
. The principal architectural devices
observed here would be realized in 1970 in modern at the ambassador of Japans residence
in Paris.

Interior and exterior architectures perfect projection at the Villa Katsura
Tuesday afternoon 1 October, Perriand visited the Villa Katsura (1579-1673), in a guided
tour, which explains her lack of time for notes and sketches. She notes two words: same
principle, and sketches a shelf with a curved plate. She would write in 1998: Wood, straw
and rice paper were the components of this architecture I was going to meet in Kyoto. I
approached religiously the imperial villa of Katsura, conceived in the XVIth century and its

K. Koizumi, Traditional Japanese furniture, Kodansha, Tokyo, 1987
Au Japon : Art ? Arts plastiques, Architecture dAujourdhui, numro spcial, N2, Jan. 1949 ; Lart dhabiter, N
spcial Techniques et Architecture, Paris, Aot 1950 ; Crise du geste au Japon, Casabella, N210, 1956

highest symbol. I had the privilege to be alone with my companions, quiet, moved in front of
such an amount of simplicity. It is a complete agreement between architecture, humanized
nature and man, a perfect projection of interior and exterior architecture.

Sights and clouds in a garden of horizon at the Villa Shugakuin
On Wednesday 2 October, Perriand discovered one of the three imperial Villas Shugakuin
(1656-1659) surrounded by a vast park. She makes a second sketch of a shelf and writes:
Shelves resting like clouds. The integrated cupboards in walls and the shelves, images of
the Imperial Villas, would bear fruit in the principles of two libraries published since 1956.
Perriands self-supporting standardized shelving unit functions like a screen of casiers'
according to the principle evoked at the Imperial Palace and that allows crossing sights.

Shelving unit, C. Perriand 1958

Cloud shelving, C. Perriand 1960

Her cloud shelving plays with the gravity centre in a dynamical way as in traditional
asymmetric Japanese furniture. Perriand ends with: The landscape designed so that the hills
ad infinitum form an integral part of the garden. She discovers the Japanese concept of
shakkei, a device where the landscape is used as support, as a view into the garden. Le
Corbusier had also observed in Pompe the way in which the sight gets into the project, the
articulation of the view and the looks scales

Mobile plays of the moon at Ginkakuji garden
Perriands visits end by her walking to the temple of Ginkakuji and its famous Zen garden
dating from the XVth century. Sand furrows express a sea encircling a cone of white sand,
symbol of Mount Fuji. Perriand notes - the white sand shape representing a famous lake -
raked in waves... a truncated sand cone, geometric, at evenings, the moon strikes it... -
(mobile plays...) indefinite. Perriand notes the presence of mobility in Japanese culture.
Traditional furniture is mobile, storable in cupboards integrated into walls. Beside space
flexibility given by sliding partitions, mobile furniture allows the choice of day and night
use for the same space. Perriand will exploit this principle in all conceivable variations:
elements of elevation, interior partitions, removable furniture, retractable with her stackable
creations started during her second stay in Japan such as anodic aluminium tables (1953) and
shadow chairs made of molded plywood (1954).
One week later, when Sakakura shows her photographs of the Imperial Palace and Katsura
Villa, Perriand notes: New architecture, rather modern... hygiene of the Japanese for ever.

Lintrieur amne lextrieur, Le Forum de Pompi dans les Carnets du Voyage dOrient, C. Gilot In Matires, EPFL
PPUR, Lausanne 1999
Hygiene related to the ritual of purification, one of the principal requirements of shintosm,
is a major parameter contributing to the purity, the simplicity of Japanese architecture.

Japan and the systematization of integrated equipment: mobility, variations, and harmony
Firstly, these five places she personally saw acted as catalyst for Perriands designing
method already turned toward a search for harmonious standardization. Perriand, in her
article Le Japon dont on parle et ses contradictions
, is clever enough not talking of
influence but of meeting of Western architectural principles, Le Corbusiers in particular,
with those illustrated in the traditional Japanese house: Nothing is more modulated and
standardized than the Japanese traditional house. The expression of its plan proceeds from
the interior towards the exterior and is in close communion with nature, towards the infinite,
which is its prolongation. Am I stating the same principles as modern architecture ones?
And did not Le Corbusier make a revolution in plan and elevations designs when he stated
no more bearing wall, free elevation and plan thanks to the contribution of new materials,
concrete and steel, and still, the house must proceed from the interior towards the exterior.
Perriand carries the critical glance of a creator identifying principles and using them
immediately within their contemporary potential. Japans impact on Perriands achievements
is a systematic dimensioning of integrated equipment adapted first to interior needs.
originality was in creating utility walls as well as mobile interior fittings: sliding doors and
openings hiding contents, then to letting users vary their own arrangement according to their
needs. She developed a free style including containers equipping all kinds of pieces of

Combat, 16 - 17 mars 1957, p. 2

Perriand explains her design method in her article Lart dhabiter, N spcial Techniques et Architecture, Paris, Aot
furniture and racks. Perriand designed envelopes modulated with containers following a
proportion controlled by the golden rule, Le Corbusiers Modulor for example, created in
1942 and patented in 1945. She worked at elements standardization since 1952, not
excluding any material, invaluable or common (since 1935 already, she had reintroduced
wood and straw) and by associating traditional and contemporary aesthetics related to new
techniques, folk and artistic, Western and Japanese.

Japan and the juxtaposition of opposites
Secondly, maybe her attitude was confirmed by the practice that in Japans art specimens,
extremes and opposites are juxtaposed. The Imperial Villas are a combination of an
aristocratic architecture and vernacular tradition carried out to perfection. In 1998, Perriand
wrote that her goal had been To give a serious analysis of immutable qualities of the
Japanese residences, attractive by their modernity, to share their charm, to prove that
standardization of modules does not lead inevitably to monotony, but with harmony, to
prove that the manner of thinking is not single (to encircle rather than to affirm... to let
escape the question...).

Prints and resonances at the Japanese Ambassadors Residence in Paris, 1970
This project is a beautiful application of Perriands knowledge resulting from the workshop
at Svres and her visits to Japan. Sakakura directed it jointly with J. Riedberger and
collaborated narrowly with Perriand, in charge of the interior equipment.
The precise
responsibility for each architect remains to be established. The correspondence between

Perriand was actually the project manager; authors interview with Mrs Reiko Hayama, architect in charge of all
drawings and present at all working meetings, Paris 2007
Sakakura and Perriand indicates the leading role of the latter in major choices of the project.
Not a surprise, as exterior and interior architecture is designed in one process. Their intense
meetings with the ambassador aimed at carrying out An exemplary Japanese modern
architecture, a human, sensitive and prestigious residence: simplicity, proportions, new
spirit. The old private mansion was demolished and a new building of glass and metal was
built. Its pure rectangular volume plays like a pivot with the transparencies between the
north-east entrance court of simple gravel and south-west long garden. A particular harmony
emerges from the project following the rule of Modulor and interpreting several principles
observed by Perriand at the Imperial Palace.

Entrance court elevation, Rsidence de lambassadeur, Paris Photo archives Perriand, 1970
On the entrance faade, fine metallic profiles by J. Prouv create a rhythm of glass panels on
four levels. Horizontal windows alternate, in modern version, with metal sheets. An elevated
ground floor (services within the basement) welcomes the central staircase with a swiveling
entrance door on a double-height hall of reception. The smooth ground is of marble. From
the hall, large mobile wood partitions
with fine black metal framework slide in parallel,
enhancing a large view across the reception rooms in an extraordinary transparency, a

All mobile partitions were realized in collaboration with J. Prouv
crossing sight onto the garden, until the horizon, as in the Imperial Villas of Katsura and
Shugakuin. The mobile south-western frontage is made of long glass panels protected by
sliding blinds of flax. Between reception rooms, white enameled iron fixed perpendicular
partitions, inspired by Le Corbusiers Zrich Pavillon dExposition (1967) are provided with
two sliding doors. Perriand also created folding screens in articulated wood, which limit
passages towards services, as in the Imperial Palace.

Perriand spent four years perfecting the equipment: partitioning of spaces, cupboards closed
with sliding doors and mobile furniture. On the second and third floors, several Japanese
devices reinterpreted by C. Perriand punctuate spaces: the tokonoma as the artistic space; a
long narrow 50cm wood table along the horizontal window, reminiscent of the shoin style
where monks studied in natural daylight
; the ofuro with a separate shower; the patio
bringing zenithal light and seasonal contact to the rooms as well as a sight from the
threshold; horizontal wood blinds underlining the patio glazing preserving the rooms
The most striking traditional device adapted by Perriand magnifies the modern frontage of
the duplex and its large cold mirror of manufactured glass windows. To bring the last and
definitive touch of inside intimacy and cordial materiality, Perriand reminded herself of
Kyoto houses, protected from street indiscretions by projecting windows made of spaced
wood slats.

Another source might be a similar table designed earlier for Teshigahara based on the sushi-table principle (R.
Hayama, Paris 2007)

Projecting window, Kyoto Voilette, Rsidence, Paris
photo, A. Drexler 1955 photo archives Perriand 1970

She uses the principle of suggestion met in Ryoanji and described in the Book of Tea: By
not saying all, the artist leaves to the spectator the occasion to supplement the idea.
Perriand designed with her favorite joiner A. Chetaille, a sequoia veil nine meters high,
fixed at a distance of 50cm inside the glazed frontage.

In her last interview about Japan in 1998, Perriand, aged 95, talked about her passion for
new technologies, their use and impact on the habitat. Her mobility of spirit could only
resound with that of the Japanese spirit, non-dialectical, accepting the old as reinterpreted,
reinvented or juxtaposed with the most futuristic contemporary. Fixed and immutable are
only words meaning a stop of development. Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, 1906.