The Refuge Tonneau was designed in 1936 by Charlotte Perriand as a mountain shelter. Two years later she produced a model with her friend Pierre Jeanneret. But the refuge never went into production: I first saw a reconstruction at the Salone del Mobile in Milan in 2012, based on Perriand’s original notes and drawings. That’s a shame, because the refuge is a masterpiece.
Perriand had an unexpected source of inspiration: a children’s merry-go-round. She borrowed the idea of a portable structure with a metallic skeleton and a roof like a carousel’s top. She then selected aluminium for the 12 panels that make up the refuge’s exterior, which made it light and easy to assemble. What’s really striking is how small but capacious the structure is. It has a diameter of just 3.8 metres, yet, thanks to Perriand’s ingenious use of space, it can easily fit eight people inside, along with everything that a mountaineer might need for a weekend in the Alps.
The heater is placed inside a central steel tube so that the refuge can be warmed using the minimum amount of space. In the tiny kitchen area there are food containers, a shelf for a stove and a sink in which to melt snow for fresh water. There is even a place to store rucksacks and skis. On the ground floor there are two beds, which can be transformed into seating by pulling on their leather straps, and on the top floor Perriand has managed to fit another two double beds and two single beds. To me, Perriand solved the challenge of putting people and furniture together in a cramped space – and did so in a functional but beautiful way.
The reconstruction I saw in Milan was built by Cassina, the Italian furniture company that now produces Perriand’s furniture – the only work by a woman in Cassina’s Maestri Collection. I have now been art director at Cassina for three years, and as a female designer I particularly connect with her work. Because I’m still so captivated by the Refuge Tonneau, I asked if I could reassemble the reconstruction and include it in the company’s 90th anniversary exhibition, which I curated in Milan in 2017. When we mounted it at the top of the exhibition building, it was like looking into the future.
Perriand died in 1999, but this shelter continues to inspire architects and designers. It resembles other, much later structures built for extreme weather conditions, such as the Mars Society Desert Research Station, created in 2001, and the Concordia stations in Antarctica, first developed in 2002. Like them, Perriand’s refuge – abstract and essential, but at the same time so detailed – resembles something from space.
Patricia Urquiola was talking to Kylie Warner