Le Corbusier: the Beautiful, Brutish Chameleon


Who Was Le Corbusier?

When it comes to art, architecture, urban planning, and Mid-Century modern furniture design, the world does indeed know Le Corbusier. After all, by the time he gave up the ghost while taking a morning swim in the Mediterranean Sea at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin at the age of 77 in 1965, this Mid-Century modern design icon had helped draw the curtain on the cubism era with his co-publishing of “After Cubism,” his anti-cubism manifesto and his introduction of a new artistic movement, purism, designed part of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, planned whole neighborhoods in Pessac, an area near Bordeaux, and the government centers of India’s Haryana and Chandigarh, designed and had produced numerous series of furniture featuring chrome-plated tubular frames and block-shaped cushions that are still actively sought after by collectors today, and had published more than 40 books on a wide variety of art, architecture, design, and related subjects.

 

Le Corbusier
Le Corbusier

But, impressive as this portfolio is, it just contains what he did, not who he was. And, though Le Corbusier did indeed possess strong opinions that he has never afraid to promote, he was also cynical, chameleon of a man who was ready to change himself, if not his beliefs, when prudent. He was a man of his times.

Born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in 1887, he did not become Le Corbusier until 1920, a time when many artists in Europe went by single names. Changing his name kept in line with his belief that he probably held his entire life that one could always reinvent him or herself. The changing of names also reflected the turmoil that the continent was going through shortly following the end of the First World War.

Seeks the Decision Makers to Bring His Beliefs to Fruition

When times are tough, people often look to strong leaders. In parts of Europe, this brought fascism in the form of Mussolini and Hitler. While, it would not be fair to state that Le Corbusier truly supported either of these leaders, it can be said that he was more than willing to work for them if doing so would give him the urban planning power he desired.

While he lectured in Mussolini’s Italy in 1934, he was never able to leverage that position into any real power and, therefore, left the nation after a year. Subsequent to the fall of Paris and much of France, Le Corbusier, who had by that time become a French citizen (1930), drew up plans for Algiers and other cities for the Vichy regime, the Hitler-backed new French government. However, his plans were never adopted and his willingness to work with those holding the power in pre-WWII and WWII Europe amounted to little.

Le Corbusier summed up his thoughts on life, men, and what was most important best when he said, “I prefer drawing to talking. Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.”

The Beautiful Brute

Much of the architecture that Le Corbusier designed featured his material of choice, rough-surfaced concrete. He called his style brutalist, which, to be fair, had nothing to do with being brutal or a brute, but was rather based upon the French words for “raw concrete,” “béton brut.” However, thanks to how heavy and oppressive many of his larger buildings are, think of Kafka’s bureaucratic buildings in “The Trial,” brutalist has a double meaning.

Mid-Century Modern Furniture Design

It was not until 1928 that Le Corbusier started designing his own furniture. In keeping with his belief that a house is “a machine for living,” he approached furniture design with the belief that the best furniture was:

Extensions of our limbs and adapted to human functions that are type-needs and type-functions, therefore type-objects and type-furniture. The human-limb object is a docile servant. A good servant is discreet and self-effacing in order to leave his master free. Certainly, works of art are tools, beautiful tools. And long live the good taste manifested by choice, subtlety, proportion, and harmony.

 

Le Corbusier LC3 Gand Confort Sofa

LC3 Grand Confort Sofa, Loveseat, and Chair

These grand style pieces feature the same style that many of Le Corbusier’s furniture designs do. Formed by the same visually-heavy block shapes that many of his cement buildings do, these grand comfort sofa, loveseat, and chair are supported by a discrete, chrome-plated tubular frame that bridges the industrial age with the modern era.

 

Le Corbusier LC2 Petit Confort Sofa

LC2 Petit Confort Sofa, Loveseat, and Chair

With its shapes and tubular frames, the LC2 set is very similar to the LC3 set. This set is so iconic that it is in the Museum of Modern Art’s design collection.

 

Le Corbusier LC4 Chaise Lounge

LC4 Chaise Lounge

This piece is a clear step away from the brutalist styles of La Corbusier’s buildings for it is not made up of thick blocks. The LC4 Chaise Lounge is drawn by organic, curved lines. With its friendly flowing shape and chrome-plated tubular frame it is a gorgeous piece.

 

Le Corbusier LC1 Basculant Sling Chair

LC1 Basculant Sling Chair

If you know the British Officers’ Chair you can imagine Le Corbusier’s Mid-Century modern furniture take on it. Simple, elegant, and made up of unimposing leather surfaces and a structurally stunning metal frame, this chair that was designed in 1928 symbolic of much of this designer’s work.

 

Le Corbusier LC6 Dining Table

LC6 Dining Table

Based upon one of Le Corbusier’s core architectural traits of using ground-level supports to elevate the building from the ground, this table is all vertical supports and a single horizontal surface. Though it is clean and simple, the designer declared in later years that he was no longer fond of this table that he had designed in 1928.

 

Le Corbusier LC10 Cocktail Tables

LC10 Cocktail and End Tables

It’s hard to imagine that a table anywhere is more functional than this one. Its polished chrome legs and clear or opaque glass top are the ultimate example of the minimal functionalism that the Mid-Century modern design movement brought to the forefront 60 or so years ago.

Le Corbusier Lives On

There is no doubt that the man’s architectural impact is still felt today. After all, people are still living and working within his buildings in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. However, not everyone is a fan of his ongoing presence with many saying that he and his compatriots are partially responsible for the terrible conditions that many lower-end urbanites live within. Though he did not design the public housing buildings found in “The Wire,” they sure look as if he did.

That said, there is no controversy regarding Le Corbusier’s furniture. His LC1 Chaise a Dos Basculant, LC2 and LC3 Grand Confort, and LC4 Chaise Lounge are some of the most iconic pieces of their era and although the Mid-Century modern furniture design age is over, a walk through any Mid-Century modern furniture store will show that there is still a market for furniture featuring discrete frames and that is “adapted to human function.”