By Stephanie Murg
I would like to make a very big gorilla—very big—who eats dirty shirts,” François-Xavier Lalanne told a reporter in October 1966, on the eve of his show at Galerie Alexandre Iolas in Paris. A primate-cum-clothes-hamper would have been in good company in François-Xavier’s home. The modest apartment he inhabited at the time, with his wife and fellow artist, Claude, was already stuffed with useful beasts: a flock of 24 woolly sheep for plush seating, a 660-pound brass rhinoceros with storage compartments, and a bed in the shape of a huge white bird. Added their creator, “They are not furniture, they are not sculpture—just call them ‘Lalannes.’”
Easy description and classification still evade pieces by the Lalannes, who worked together—almost always in separate studios—from 1956 until François-Xavier’s death in December 2008, at the age of 81. They decided early on to exhibit their creations under the name “Les Lalanne” and never cared much for other labels. “Museums don’t know where to put us,” François-Xavier said in 1998.
Collectors have never had that problem, and interest in the Lalannes’ work continues to gain momentum internationally. Last December saw a new auction record, when a group of ten epoxy-stone sheep, designed around 1979, went for $7.47 million at Christie’s Important 20th Century Decorative Art & Design sale in New York. And on May 4, also in New York, Paul Kasmin Gallery will debut a large exhibition on the Lalannes. “She’s working on all kinds of new things,” says Kasmin, who has represented the artists since 2006, “and there is a fair amount of work that he made that hasn’t been seen, so I’m very much concentrating on that.” Works on view at the gallery will include several of Claude’s “Choupattes,” patinated bronze cabbages perched on chicken feet, with prices beginning at $280,000.
Born in Agen, France, in 1927, François-Xavier attended art school at the Académie Julian in Paris and set up a studio in Montparnasse, where he befriended such neighbors as Constantin Brancusi, Jean Tinguely, and American sculptor James Metcalf. He met Paris-born Claude Dupeux, who studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, at a show of his paintings in 1952. The pair embarked on a series of design jobs—windows for Christian Dior (where they met a young Yves Saint Laurent, who would become one of their greatest patrons), set design for choreographer Maurice Béjart—before having their first “joint solo show,” at Paris’s Galerie J. in 1964. Among the pieces there were a brass rhino desk and Claude’s first “Choupattes.” Metcalf called it “a fine exhibition of contemporary objects useful to the extent you find them useful,” and John Ashbery filed a favorable review for the New York Herald Tribune.
“We started with certain techniques that we developed with time and with which we evolved,” says Claude, now in her late 80s. “The notion of utility is evident from the start. For us, it adds a different way of looking at a work of art.” Their parallel but distinct practices—his deliberate and architectural, hers improvisational and organic—were introduced to American audiences in 1967, when the Art Institute of Chicago hosted a show that included a flock of sheep and La Mouche, a four-foot-long brass fly with Plexiglas wings that open to reveal a handcrafted toilet. In 1972, their foam bed in the form of a can of sardines was exhibited at Leo Castelli’s “Furniture by Artists” show in New York, alongside Donald Judd’s steel tables and Robert Rauschenberg’s rubber-tire lamp. Critics were intrigued, but many viewers didn’t know what to make of the Lalannes’ meticulously crafted zoomorphic sculptures at a time when abstract art prevailed in the United States.
In the following decades, as the couple racked up retrospectives and commissions in France, their pieces gradually entered American collections through the championing of interior designers like Jacques Grange and Peter Marino and began to show up more frequently at sales of decorative arts and design in New York. Kasmin’s exhibitions, including a 2009 display along Manhattan’s Park Avenue, have stoked the American market for Les Lalanne, while dealer Ben Brown has reintroduced their works to London collectors. His 2007 exhibition of bronze creatures and leafy furniture was the first Lalanne show in England since 1976.
At the farm in Ury, France, where the couple moved in 1967, Claude continues to create tables draped in bronze crocodile skins, called “Crococonsoles,” and vermeil necklaces made from electroplated lettuce leaves. Kasmin remembers his first visit to the Lalannes’ sprawling, wisteria-swaddled world (about an hour’s drive from Paris) as an immersive experience. “I became aware that this home was an industrious environment, as there would be at least five or six people welding and doing all kinds of metalwork in the workshop and the cobbled courtyard,” he writes in his introduction to Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne: Art. Work. Life., a book of photographs coming out in May from Skira Rizzoli. “The sculptures in the house and gardens were never the same on any visit.”
As for the recent auction record at Christie’s, Kasmin describes his reaction as “surprised but not that surprised,” explaining, “With Lalanne, once people decide that they want something, they’re determined to get it. There have been a few occasions where results have gone completely crazy, and it’s people that just want the work.”
“We’ve seen very strong prices for Lalanne going back to 2005 and 2006 at auction, and it is the blue-chip thing of the market these days,” says James Zemaitis, director of Sotheby’s 20th-century design department. Lalanne pieces, in fact, emerged at the top of the December design sales at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
At the peak of the latter’s auction was the Lalannes’ sleek bronze Centaure, which sold for $542,500, nearly double its high estimate. The seven-foot-tall half-man, half-horse, executed in 1983, was a rare collaboration between husband and wife. “Our architect friend Paul Chemetov was in charge of building the French embassy in New Delhi. He wanted us to make a sculpture for the embassy as long as we built it together,” Claude says of the statue’s genesis. “François made the animal, and I made the man.”
Stephanie Murg is a New York–based writer covering art and design. She blogs at UnBeige.com.