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A Pioneering Prefab From The 1940s Finds New Life

Charlotte Perriand’s furniture gets more attention than her architecture. But her daughter, working with Cassina and a group of students, has reanimated one of her most ambitious prefab schemes.

Ever wonder what unfinished plans you’ll leave behind when you’re gone? (Besides student debt and overdue library books, of course.) Charlotte Perriand saw many of her designs mass-produced on a global scale over the course of her long, accomplished life. (Some took longer, as we wrote here.) Still, when she died in 1999, she left notebooks full of unrealized work to her daughter, Pernette Martin-Barsac. One particularly curious design detailed a prefab alpine dwelling called the Refuge Tonneau, which Perriand–a skier and outdoor enthusiast–had imagined during the early years of World War II.

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Perriand was working at a ski resort in the French Alps just before the outbreak of the war. When France entered the conflict, she left the resort and returned to Paris, where Jean Prouvé was testing new modes of aluminum fabrication, experimenting with lightweight housing pods that would lead to his celebrated prefab Tropical House. Perriand took up a collaboration with Prouvé and her longtime collaborator, Pierre Jeanneret.

Together, the trio spent three years developing lightweight portable housing units. But the Refuge Tonneau is probably the most remarkable. The dodecahedral capsule can be assembled in just four days. It sits on 12 aluminum legs, which can be raised and lowered on uneven ground. A simple structural frame of steel supports the fir interior panels and aluminum exterior, whose roofline is raised slightly to allow snow to slide off on its own. It sleeps six, though its interior is tiny (24 square feet, somehow). Pull-down beds, a map table, a diminutive kitchen nook, ski storage, and a second lofted sleeping area round out the functioning pieces of the capsule. Though it was designed as a portable home for skiers, there’s something more ominous present as well: Most of Perriand’s cadre was involved in the French Resistance, and their interest in temporary housing must have been motivated, in part, by the looming Nazi threat.

Ultimately, Refuge Tonneau was never actually built. Perriand sailed for Japan in 1940, and through her collaboration with Prouvé continued into the ’50s, the housing concept fell by the wayside. Until last year, when Perriand’s daughter and the Italian furniture manufacturer, Cassina, decided to create the first-ever full-scale mockup of the design. They debuted the finished aluminum capsule (built by a group of French architecture students) at last month’s Milan Furniture Fair. Sitting amongst contemporary design booths as attendees scurried around its tubular legs taking pictures, the Refuge looked like some kind of resplendent transmission from the retro-future. Perriand, a fiercely modern figure up until her death, probably would have been proud.

[Images courtesy of Cassina, h/t Dwell]

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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