Le Corbusier: the Objet-Type idea

LC1 armchair, 1928. Image Cassina

Amongst many things Le Corbusier (1887-1965) had a predilection for anonymous objects which had evolved with time to a high level of functional refinement typically with a simple idea and a form reduced down to essentials through use and through the dictates of factory production. The LC1 or “Basculant” chair of 1928, designed with Charlotte Perriand, a re-working in metal of the standard colonial-era lightweight chair is a case in point. In the early 1920s, before such refinements saw the light of day, Le Corbusier had furnished his early Parisian buildings with utilitarian classics like the original Thonet bentwood chair that dates from 1859.

Thonet - bentwood chair 1859. Image Thonet

His e idea of the objet-type can be traced back to his well-documented Voyage d’Orient[1] of 1910-1911 and if it now sounds somewhat teleological, that may not be how he experienced it but the shape he gave it subsequently. Voyaging from one Mediterranean ancient site to another in a steam-powered iron boat, he began to think about two “standards”: the Classical and the Mechanical[2].  The chronological space between the two represented “progress” for the young artist. Years later the famous coupling of mechanical and classical archetypes in Vers Une Architecture (1923, English version 1927) is the eventual rhetorical form he  gave to the pairing of these apparent opposites in support of an architectural aesthetic.

Page spread from Vers Une Architecture

After Le Corbusier moved to Paris at the end of World War 1 he initially occupied himself with painting. He began collaborating with the artist Amedee Ozenfant (1886-1966) on the book Apres Le Cubisme (1917) and on a subsequent exhibition. Their work, which called for the object in art to be given an emphatic  integrity,was labelled Purism. Le Corbusier’s Purist paintings of the early 1920s illustrate this with regard to the standard objects of industrial culture – which the two called objet-types – such as briar pipes, glass bottles and flasks and café chairs like the 1859 Thonet.

Briar pipe from Vers Une Architecture

Nature morte au violin rouge, 120 (FLC 137)

Following the second Purism exhibition in 1920 Le Corbusier began to spend more and more time on architecture. Working initially on house commissions for clients like Raoul La Roche, one of the earlier collectors of the his paintings, the painter-architect was able engage architecturally with theoretical constructs such as objet-type that he’d formulated with Ozenfant in working on Purist paintings. In the domestic interior he proposed an alternative to the “decorative arts” of the time with an approach centered on the objet-type notion applied to furniture, light fittings, boxes (casiers) for joinery and so on, which he called “decorative arts without the decoration.”

Dining Room, Maison La Roche 1924 (FLC)

Other furniture which corresponded to the objet-type idea included the standard London “Maple” Club Chair, the Thonet bentwood armchairs (now called the “Le Corbusier” chair by Thonet), standard tables and writings desks, and virtually bare-bulb light fittings.

Black leather Club Chair - 2010

It would be misguided to link le Corbusier’s objet-type notion to Marchel Duchamp’s concept of the ready-made however. Where the objet-type was developed as a way of re-conceiving architectural interiors, Duchamp saw things differently:

Marcel Duchamp – Fountain, 1917 (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

… the choice of his “ready-mades” was never dictated by aesthetic delectation, but based on a reaction of visual indifference together with a total absence of good or bad taste. [Renny Ramakers (2002) Less is More: Droog Design in Context]

In the ensuing decades Le Corbusier’s architectural work continued to affirm the 0bjet-type ethos. From the celebration of industrial culture in the magazine L’Espirit Nouveau he edited with Ozenfant,to the porcelain lavatory in the Villa Savoy entry (1930), to the standard furnishings of a typical student room in  Pavilion Suisse (1933).

Pavilion Suisse Student Room (Galerie Ulrich Fielder)

And, in his own Paris apartment and particularly his Cabanon (1952, reconstructed 2004), he pursued the idea as sort of demotic design language constituted of the everyday objects of  20th century industrial culture.

Cabanon interior - 2004 reconstruction

[1] Le Corbusier(2002) – English Edition: Voyage D’orient Carnets

[2] Marges Bacon(2003) – Le Corbusier in America: Travels in the Land of the Timid p145.

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