T he first admirers of Lalanne’s talent at their debut must have had a sixth sense. Between animal sculptures and functional furniture, the Lalanne’s work was difficult to grasp. 1964: the couple’s first exhibition, entitled Zoophites took place at the J gallery in Paris where Jeannine Restany, although usually a supporter of the Nouveaux realistes, showed their work.
The dealer and collector, Alexandre Iolas, went to see it in the company of Nike de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguley. He stopped short in front of the François-Xavier Lalanne’s Rhinocrétaire, a brass mammal turned into a desk. He was fascinated by Claude’s Choupatte, a pot-bellied vegetable stuck on legs. The Greek gallery owner Iolas, as eccentric as he was generous, who represented moreover the masters of surrealism such as Brauner, Ernst, Magritte, took the Lalannes under his wing.
One day when the work “L’homme à la tête de chou” was on display in his gallery window, his neighbour Serge Gainsbourg passed by, and was immediately captivated. Not only did he purchase the statue, but he later wrote a song of the same name that was inspired by it.
Through his different galleries in Geneva, Madrid, Milan, New York and Athens, Alexandre Iolas propelled the duo of sculptors onto the international scene. Their poetry and their humour enchanted wealthy aesthetes. The dinner parties given by Marie-Hélène and Guy de Rothschild presented the delighted guests with the vegetable patterned cutlery imagined by Claude.
François-Xavier’s sheep in particular amused the jet-set. The woolly fleeced bestiary and bronze boor were eventually used as chairs. And a flock was placed in Gunter Sachs’ Saint-Moritz chalet, the prince of play-boys, where his guests lounged in delight. Other examples can be found in the home of Giovanni Agnelli, the president of Fiat.
The extremely elegant Agnelli entrusted the decoration of his apartment to the Milanese architect Gae Aulenti, who brought together twenty or so dishevelled sheep who cohabit, somewhat intimidated, with the likes of Bacon, Lichtenstein and Warhol.
Animals also invade the lair of the hunter Roger Vivier, photographed in Life magazine. Forever obliged to renew their themes, fashion designers seek out originality. Fashion designers thus figured among the first collectors of the Lalanne duo. Yves Saint Laurent was a faithful follower. In 1964, he commissioned François-Xavier Lalanne for a work that is a cross between a bar and a piece of furniture for his apartment on the place Vauban.
Then, over the following decade, he asked Claude for a work, who covered one of his living rooms on the rue de Babylone with his leafy mirrors. With Pierre Bergé, they were to collect many works by the couple, from marble birds to Claude’s last mirror commissioned for their house in Tangiers.
Karl Lagerfeld was not to be outdone. He, in turn, commissioned a drawing table, which adorned his apartment on the rue de l’Université. Alongside his collection of Art Déco furniture, he set up coffee grain chairs, a boa rug and a few sculptures by François-Xavier Lalanne. Olivier de la Baume, Jane Holzer, Nathalie de Noailles and Jacqueline Delubac also collected works by the couple.
It is also important to mention Georges Pompidou, who brought contemporary art to the Elysée palace. Among other pieces, the President of the Republic placed François-Xavier’s Austrian bar in the Elysée, made at the Sèvres Manufacturer. A joyful Austrian bar in biscuit and metal where a detachable egg functions as an ice bucket. One of the examples of this piece reached the record price of €6.2 million during the auction of Jacques Grange’s collection at Sotheby’s Paris in 2017.