Twenty-two years after her death, the influence of Charlotte Perriand, the design brains behind the modernist ski resort of Les Arcs, is as strong as ever. Dominic Bliss finds out why there are still new books, exhibitions and architecture tours dedicated to her work.
“I wanted to establish a perfect harmony between the sky, the mountain pastures and mankind.”
Harmony was the driving factor behind Charlotte Perriand’s mission as she embarked, in 1967, on her two-decades-long project to design the ski resort Les Arcs. This French architect and interior designer had been charged with creating a new resort in the Savoie across three different altitudes – 1,600, 1,800 and 2,000 metres above sea level – with room to accommodate 30,000 people. In an era when the vast majority of architects were male, she was appointed creative lead on the project. It was to be her magnum opus. The buildings and the apartments Perriand oversaw would democratise skiing, opening up mountain holidays to the masses, and in the process, create a new town at high altitude.
The architectural style of Les Arcs, with its vast, stepped apartment buildings, sweeping roofs, bright terraces and corridors and functional interiors, still has the power to amaze visitors, even now, half a century after construction began. It cemented Perriand’s reputation as a pioneer of the modernist movement. Indeed, this year, 22 years after her death, there was a major exhibition at London’s Design Museum dedicated to her work. At the resort itself, the tourist office runs architecture tours on foot and on skis.
Born in Paris in 1903, Perriand always had a strong connection to the Savoie through her parents, who were born there. She would spend many happy holidays in the mountains, staying with her paternal grandparents, where she enjoyed hiking, skiing and nature in all its splendour.
Encouraged by her mother and high-school art teacher, in 1920 she enrolled at the École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, where she studied furniture design. Shying away from the traditional medium of wood, she was drawn to the more industrial materials of aluminium, nickel, glass and steel, shaping them in blunt geometric forms, and maximising their reflective surfaces. In 1927, she applied to work at the studio of Le Corbusier, but was famously rebuffed with the withering comment: “Mademoiselle, we don’t embroider cushions in my studio”. Undeterred, she invited him to view her work at an exhibition, whereupon Le Corbusier promptly changed his mind about hiring a woman.
Alongside Le Corbusier, Perriand designed three furniture pieces which became so famous that versions are still sold today: the siège à dossier basculant, the fauteuil grand confort and the chaise longue. She later worked with Jean Prouvé, an architect who favoured the use of metal. And during World War II, she worked in Japan and Vietnam, cultures which would influence many of her subsequent designs.
Her first forays into building design, independent of Le Corbusier’s studio, were concepts for weekend homes in the countryside, driven by her love of sport and the great outdoors. In the 1930s, her keenness for canoeing led to a design for a portable weekend house on a riverbank – a timber structure with two single-storey cabins, a barbecue, a terrace and a diving board. “House as a campsite” is how she described it. This was the first time she struck upon the idea of bringing the natural world into the interior of a building. Post-World War II, her architectural projects included a modernist apartment building in Marseille called Unité d’Habitation and the commercial interiors for Air France’s London offices. But it was the Les Arcs venture, commencing in 1967, for which she is most remembered. The Design Museum exhibition, ‘Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life’, called it “the crowning achievement of a long career”.
A Meeting of Minds
As with all major architectural plans, Les Arcs was a collaboration between several great design minds. Gaston Regairaz, Jean Prouvé, Guy Rey-Millet, Pierre Faucheux and Bernard Taillefer were also part of the talented team. They employed a mountain guide, Robert Blanc, to give them the local knowledge they needed, while Perriand was the creative lead.
In that post-war period, the socialist French government was keen to promote mountain holidays for the masses. This coincided with a new policy to mandate paid annual leave for all employees. The developer of Les Arcs, Roger Godino, seized the opportunity and commissioned Perriand and her team to create accommodation for up to 30,000 visitors on virgin alpine pastures. In their mountain setting, these modernist buildings and interiors have lost none of their impact in the intervening years. In Arc 1600, you’ll find La Cascade, completed in 1969. It’s a vast building with 140 apartments spread over seven adjoined four-storey blocks, arranged in steps up the mountain slope. The whole edifice cantilevers from the south to the north so that sunlight floods the apartment interiors on the south side, and the pitch of the building on the north side protects residents from rain and snow as they walk up to their front doors.
Perriand described this as “an optical trick which erased the glass façade and opened up towards the exterior, the pine trees, the mountain pasture, the horizon – an intentional but simple gesture which changed everything”. Also in Arc 1600 is Le Versant Sud, a block of 232 apartments, completed in 1974. Set into the side of the mountain, it has flat roofs which, when covered with snow, are near invisible from above. Two years later came the enormous Belles-Challes and Lauzières, in Arc 1800, with nearly 600 residences across 17 storeys. Again the building follows the contour of the mountain slope, while the staggered balconies look like steps on the exterior. Inside it’s even more impressive, with ramped pedestrian walkways, solid doors, balustrades and banisters, steel supports painted in bright orange and blue, and tiny bridges crossing a central atrium from one side of the building to the other. As in several of Perriand’s structures, the bathroom and kitchen modules were prefabricated, then craned into place through the windows, after which they were quickly hooked up to the water and electricity supply. This process cleverly reduced the construction time by many months.
Jean-Marie Chevronnet is a guide who works for the local tourism office, offering architectural tours of Les Arcs on foot and on skis. He explains some of Perriand’s key architectural trademarks: “The buildings follow the slope of the mountain,” he says. “The windows and balconies open up onto the countryside. It was all about looking to the exterior, but also bringing the exterior into the interior. There was no décor because Perriand believed that the décor was what you could see outside your apartment. The materials are all functional, simple and durable: wood, steel, glass, metal, enamel. And then there was her idea that the whole family should live together in one room in the apartment.”
A Feminist Approach
The latter was important to Perriand who, as a feminist, insisted that while on holiday, the women of the family shouldn’t be sequestered in the kitchen preparing meals. In a book published in 2018 to celebrate Les Arcs’ 50th anniversary, a resort spokesperson explains her thinking: “A feminist before her time, Perriand wanted women to be liberated from their usual constraints while on holiday. So she imagined apartment interiors with maximum automation to simplify the household chores, and she imposed open-plan kitchens so women wouldn’t be excluded, allowing them to take part uninterrupted in family life. This seems so normal today, but during that era it was almost inconceivable.”
Perriand even gave potential buyers her personal phone number so she could explain this open-plan philosophy to each and every one of them. Interestingly, half a century on, the modernist storage units, drawers and sideboards that she fitted in her kitchens and bathrooms now regularly fetch thousands of euros at auction.
Ahead of Her Time
Justin McGuirk was curator for the recent exhibition at London’s Design Museum. He explains how, in the late 1960s, it was still relatively unusual for a female designer to be the creative lead on a project the size of Les Arcs. “Perriand was one of the very few women designers back then to achieve the kind of success and recognition she did,” he adds. “It says a lot about the perception of women in the design world that [in the 1960s] they were responsible for the soft furnishings, not the hard stuff of architecture. This is the way so many women designers were marginalised in the 20th century. She is important because she is a female role model in the design world and there are so few in the canon of design history.”
McGuirk believes Perriand’s skill at engaging multiple collaborators on her projects made her stand out. “A lot of her greatest work was done in collaboration [with others]. I think that reflects both her world view and a much more realistic idea of what design is. It’s her collaborative spirit that makes her a real role model for design today.” Equally important was Perriand’s socialist attitude: from the very outset, Les Arcs was intended to democratise mountain sport, making skiing and hiking more accessible and less expensive for normal working people. Granted, the architecture of Les Arcs isn’t for everyone. If you prefer cosy, wooden chalets with open fires then the modernist heft of her structures and functionalism of her interiors may not appeal. But as Chevronnet explains, her idea was to lessen the impact of a ski resort on the mountain environment by constructing a few large buildings instead of myriad small ones dotted all across the landscape.
McGuirk believes that, despite all she achieved, Perriand still hasn’t received the recognition she truly deserves. “First, she was a woman, and her primary mode of expression was the interior, a realm largely subsumed under the totalising vision of the male architect,” he wrote in the book accompanying his exhibition. “The other reason is precisely because Perriand was a natural and enthusiastic collaborator. In a number of projects, the ski resort of Les Arcs being the most obvious, she was the driving force but also the connective tissue between her numerous creative partners.” Indeed, later in her career, gallery owners would often attribute her furniture to her design partner Jean Prouvé, who was better known to the public, in the hope of raising its market value.
Even after Perriand’s work at Les Arcs finished in the late 1980s, the development of the resort continued apace. In 1989, the funiculaire was built, a small-gauge railway that linked Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Arc 1600 in just seven minutes. In 2003, a fourth resort, Arc 1950, was completed. At the same time the whole of the Les Arcs was incorporated into one vast skiing area (along with La Plagne and Peisey-Vallandry) called Paradiski, offering 425km of pistes.
If Perriand were still with us, she would be impressed. As a modernist, she understood the importance of constant progression. “Everything changes so quickly, and what is state-of-the-art one moment won’t be the next,” she said. “Adaptation has to be ongoing – we have to know and accept this. These are transient times.”
Les Arcs-Bourg-Saint-Maurice tourism office offers architectural tours of the resort. For Brits looking to ski this winter, it’s best to check the French Consulate’s website for the latest travel rules and frequently changing Covid restrictions between the UK and France. Or check the UK government’s website for foreign travel advice and entry requirements.
From France Today Magazine