When Nikhil Paul installed his studio’s new floor lamp—a burnt brass stand, with iron arms and spherical blown glass shades at the each end—at the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France, this May, he felt like things had come a full circle. The building had been designed by the Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, in 1952. As a child, Paul—now the founder of Paul Matter, a Delhi-based lighting design studio and atelier—had spent every summer vacation at his aunt’s home in Chandigarh, the city Le Corbusier designed.
In fact, the city, with its squares, parks and avenues, was his first tryst with design. “It made me curious about architecture. My parents are doctors and I was studying to be one, but by happenstance I got into design and revisited everything I had seen growing up,” he says.
In May, Ygaël Attali, co-founder of the international art gallery Galerie Philia, invited him to participate in Heritages, an exhibition to celebrate 70 years of Unité d’Habitation, a self-sufficient housing structure with everything the residents needed located within. Paul, one of eight international designers there, showcased Envol, a lamp inspired by Le Corbusier.
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Le Corbusier, who died at age 77 in 1965, is best known for his buildings, which influenced generations of architects, but over the past couple of years, product design has begun drawing from his work. Contemporary interpretations take just the curve of a line from his architecture, his powerful sense of proportion or the brutalist style that he followed, and incorporate these elements into cutting-edge product design.
You can now see the colour keyboards—or “Architectural Polychromy”—that Le Corbusier created between 1931-59, drawing on nature’s hues to achieve harmony in design, in tiles, switch designs and kitchen interiors. The Fondation Le Corbusier, a private foundation and archive that is the custodian of his legacy, has entrusted Les Couleurs Suisse AG with the worldwide licence for the original Le Corbusier colours; they work with select manufacturers.
The Italian company GIGACER, for instance, offers large-format ceramic tiles in the Corbusier colour of 32142 ombre naturelle claire. The German electrical installations company JUNG has been hand-painting surface switches in Corbusier colours for some years. In India , design ateliers such as Phantom Hands and Dotto Objects are independently creating pieces inspired by the architect’s design philosophy.
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Though Le Corbusier is known for his sense of proportion, harmony in design and contribution to urban planning, particularly the design of Chandigarh, which started in 1951, he also designed furniture, like settees and chairs, for the spaces he created. For decades, versions of the pieces he created with cousins Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriard, which came to be known as LC furniture, have been replicated. Since 1964, however, the Italian manufacturing company Cassina Spa has been the exclusive manufacturer of Le Corbusier furniture bearing the logo of Fondation Le Corbusier.
Now, with the rise of multidisciplinary studios, helmed by young designers who are collaborating with textile designers, artisans and international designers to look at specific aspects of iconic creators like Le Corbusier, a greater range of everyday objects is taking inspiration from the architect’s vision.
At Paul Matter, experiments are on to convert the site installation from Heritages into a series. It’s interesting to learn how the piece came into being: On weekends, Paul would head to Chandigarh and revisit places from his childhood. “All Corbusier’s concepts and detailing—in the parks, city squares, university, walkways, even the drainage covers on the roads—are celebrated in such a monumental way in the city,” he says. Indeed, in this, his most ambitious, project, Le Corbusier brought in all the learnings from earlier projects, like the Villa Savoye in Poissy, France, and introduced elements such as the architectural promenade, tree-laden avenues, the use of the Modular, concrete grills, and open spaces with a play of light and shadows.
Paul studied both Chandigarh and Unité d’Habitation and decided to pay homage with the former as the point of reference. The team studied Le Corbusier’s Modulor maps (described as the “anthropometric scale of proportions devised by Corbusier”), created 100 prototypes, and selected one to send to Hermitages. “We took the rotating Open Hand Monument, installed at Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex, and simplified it,” explains Paul.
Materiality has always played a huge role in design at Paul Matter, set up in 2016, and this was no different. The team used blown glass, which added a lightness to the design, and the softer metal qualities of brass. “Brass is easy to bend and ages beautifully. We kept mild steel as the base and let it rust to capture a bit of the brutalist essence of Corbusier,” he says.
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In another design atelier in Bengaluru, Le Corbusier’s vocabulary is being interpreted very differently. Phantom Hands, a design-driven contemporary furniture maker and a collective of artisans from traditional craft communities, creates furniture based on pieces—chairs, lamps— designed for public spaces and buildings in Chandigarh in the 1950s-60s.
It started in 2014-15, when Deepak Srinath, co-founder of Phantom Hands, became interested in the design heritage of Chandigarh. Besides Le Corbusier, he was fascinated by Jeanneret, who wasn’t as well known, but had been crucial to the evolution of Indian Modernist design. “I started researching the provenance of the pieces (chairs). In many ways, this (Chandigarh furniture) was one of the first open-source design projects in the world. Designs were not just created by Jeanneret and Corbusier but contributions were made by several other Indian architects and designers,who were part of the team. Some were modified to suit a particular requirement of a public building,” says Srinath.
It came as a surprise to him that though there was a market for such designs, no one, other than local carpenters, was making these chairs any more.
In the 2000s, in fact, there had been some controversy over Chandigarh’s design heritage being exported and exploited after international auction houses began selling vintage furniture made by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret for the city. “We wanted to be above board, so I spent several months researching the history and design authorship claims of these pieces (Chandigarh furniture),” says Srinath. Apart from meeting architects S.D. Sharma and B.V. Doshi, who had worked with Le Corbusier and Jeanneret, to understand how the furniture had been designed and produced, he reached out to Prof Maristella Casciato, formerly of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, Canada, where Jeanneret’s archives are housed. After speaking with intellectual property rights lawyers, scholars and Jeanneret’s family, he realised that it was difficult to identify Le Corbusier or Jeanneret as the sole creators of this furniture. Several people—local architects, craftsmen and others—had been involved. The copyright didn’t lie with Jeanneret’s estate and the designs had never been licensed to a single manufacturer. Phantom Hands then decided to create “re-editions” of the Chandigarh furniture, starting with the X-legged and V-legged office chairs and armchairs in teak and cane.
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“We wanted to create a well-made piece which had the proportions that the original designers had intended,” says Srinath. Unlike typical vintage furniture, which perhaps fits well only into retro-themed homes, Chandigarh designs have aged well; their simple, clean lines fit snugly into contemporary spaces. Crafted in teak and cane, they work just as well in traditional Indian settings too. “People want to go back to handmade, which reminds them of simpler times. These are objects that don’t just look good but are extremely functional and robust. We have put a lot of thought into our joineries and material. As much reclaimed wood has gone in as possible. Our pieces should last between 50 and 100 years. Isn’t that what sustainability is all about?” asks Srinath.
Phantom Hands also created contemporary interpretations of Le Corbusier’s design language. In collaboration with the Amsterdam-based design duo x+l, they made a coffee table with legs inspired by the architectural shapes seen in Le Corbusier’s buildings in Chandigarh. A floor lamp and a table lamp, also designed by x+l for Phantom Hands, take into account the architect’s lifelong fascination with light and shadows. “He was a master of proportion. We try to bring that out in our furniture. Our contemporary design collaborators continue to be inspired by his powerful design language,” says Srinath.
Saloni Mehta, the founder of Dotto, a multidisciplinary design studio in Ahmedabad, agrees. Her team is working on its new collection, Thea, featuring objects in teak, wood and brass that are inspired by the curves of Le Corbusier’s work. Mehta, who started Dotto in 2019, says her studio aims to “design sans scale” and create lifestyle products inspired by art, architecture and literature.
She found Le Corbusier’s attention to detail in even the smallest of things, be it drainage covers, faucets or doorknobs, inspiring. “We decided to do the same. When we designed sling bags, we didn’t opt for ready-made hardware available in the market. We created the hardware ourselves. If we are designing something, it has to be a wholesome experience,” she says.
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Her team has drawn from Le Corbusier’s paintings, especially the ones featuring women. This was an extension of Mehta’s graduation project, in which she overlaid the plans of his buildings with his paintings. “The forms are so similar. The way he drew a thigh of a woman would match the lines in one part of his public buildings,” she explains. This project was converted to “design sans scale” at Dotto, where a facade of a building could be converted into a tabletop, a purse, a door.... “We focus on aesthetics and functionality. Our new series of mirrors, inspired by Corbusier, allows you to hang everything on it, from the smallest piece of jewellery to scarves and sunglasses. It’s a hat tip to the versatility of the master architect,” says Mehta.
Le Corbusier believed in an interdisciplinary approach. It is only apt, then, that decades later, young designers are taking this ethos forward, collaborating to uphold the principles of harmony, proportion and unrestrained openness that the master architect believed in so strongly.