20th Century Design

Renowned Designer Claude Lalanne on her Work and Friendships with Dalí, Brancusi, Duchamp and more

By Alain Elkann
In an interview which originally appeared in Sotheby's 76 Faubourg Magazine in autumn 2018, journalist and novelist Alain Elkann spoke to Claude Lalanne about her work, and the work of her late husband, François-Xavier Lalanne. Works by François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne feature in Sotheby's upcoming Important Design auctions in New York (23 May) and Paris (28 May).

I find Claude Lalanne in her apartment at the top floor of a Haussmann building on Boulevard Raspail in Paris. Claude spends most of her time in her country house, where she has her studios, and in which she spent several years with her husband François-Xavier. Nonetheless, she travels regularly to Paris to see her friends, as well as her dealer Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand.

Claude Lalanne, Fauteuil Crocodile, 2016. Estimate €300,000–500,000. To be offered in Important Design in Paris on 28 May.

We sit down around a little round table, on metal chairs decorated with bamboo, the Chaises Feuille Bambou which she designed several years ago.

Alain Elkann: Claude, for many years with your husband François-Xavier, you were known under a joint name: ‘Les Lalanne’. What was the origin of that?

Claude Lalanne: At first I worked simply on making decorative objects, like birds, for the Le Printemps department store. I asked François to help me. We weren’t yet married in those days. Our order book started filling up; a lot of decorators were buying our work, but they put their own names on it rather than ours. That situation was getting deeply annoying for us. It was then that an American sculptor, Jimmy Metcalf, suggested that we change our status and become artists, encouraging us to show our works, signed with our name, in an art gallery.

Claude Lalanne, Ginkgo bench, 2003. Sold for €187,500.

Then what happened?

We collaborated on the creation of an exhibition in a gallery run by a friend, Jeanine Goldsmith. The preparation of the exhibition was quite a difficult time for us, because we had to go on working together to make a living. It took us about a year to prepare that exhibition.

He came flanked by two wild animals, and I had to ask him to tell me exactly when he was coming so that I could put my dogs in a safe place.
Claude Lalanne, on Salvador Dalí

What did you show at that exhibition?

François had sculpted an imposing restaurant in brass. I’d made the Choupatte (a cabbage with chicken’s feet), and some other objects including a small onion enclosing a watch that showed the time. What’s amusing is that a few years later we became friends with Salvador Dalí, who I visited at the Hôtel Le Meurice in Paris. He asked me if I could lend him the Onion Watch, and I did, but he never gave it back and I was very upset about that. And then one day I had a call from his wife Gala asking me to come and see them at the Meurice. Then she gave me the watch back. While we’re on the subject, Salvador Dalí asked me to make a set of cutlery for him, which I did. And in a book about his work, he published the knife, the fork and the spoon under his own name! The work was one of my creations, and I think I can say that those items of cutlery are among the emblematic objects of my production.

Claude Lalanne, Hosta chair, designed in 1972, realised in 2007. Sold for €357,000.

How did you first become friends with Salvador Dalí?

As I said, he had asked me to show him my cutlery and then I was delighted when Gala called me and asked to give me the watch he had taken. He was funny. François and I used to go and see them at the Meurice, but he also came to the house. He came flanked by two wild animals, and I had to ask him to tell me exactly when he was coming so that I could put my dogs in a safe place. On one of his visits, he saw François’s Rhinoceros and expressed his desire to have it. François knew that Dalí liked getting presents, but he never gave it to him

What were your other activities?

As I said to you, François’s Rhinoceros and my cutlery were shown at that first exhibition, to which Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint-Phalle came with the Greek art dealer Alexandre Iolas. A few weeks later we got a call from Alexandre Iolas, saying: ‘Children, would you work with me?’ We immediately agreed, and we worked with Alexandre until he died.

Claude Lalanne, Ginkgo chair, 2003. Sold for €62,500.

How did you get the idea of making the series of sculptures called Sheep?

François had the idea of the white sheep with the black head and feet in bronze with a black patina. He had been invited to put together a big exhibition for a museum, and he wanted to create something astonishing that would be at the middle of all those curiosities. Then he came up with the idea of creating twenty-four sheep.

Where are they now?

I think our first collector was Gunter Sachs, Brigitte Bardot’s German ex-husband, who bought all twenty-four Sheep. Then M. Gianni Agnelli also ordered twenty Sheep for his Milan apartment, designed by the Italian architect Gae Aulenti. Then the Sheep enjoyed great success everywhere. The Sheep were also shown at the Centre Pompidou, but I have to admit, and it’s very sad, but we aren’t very appreciated by museums. I think our work is considered unclassifiable by museums, who don’t know how to show them.

Were you very close friends with Yves Saint-Laurent?

Yes. Yves asked me to design some mirrors for him. One evening, when we were having dinner together, he finally asked me to fill his drawing room with mirrors. It was for his apartment on Rue Babylone.

How did you meet the American architect Peter Marino?

Peter had ordered some of my creations to put them in apartments that he decorated all over the world. He ordered some chairs as well as the Rhinoceros and some other objects. Later he asked me to create a very large circular banquette, at the centre of which was a mass of blue hydrangeas. It was a creation made for Dior shops all over the world.

Claude Lalanne, Mirror, circa 1990. Sold for €37,500.

Did other fashion designers also give you commissions?

Yes, Chanel ordered a small sculpture for their shops.

Could we say that you’re closely connected to the world of fashion?

Yes, Karl Lagerfeld is also a close friend.

Your husband died ten years ago. But you carried on working?

I’m still working! I’ve had several exhibitions. In each one, even after François’s death, I’ve always mixed some of his works up with mine.

What are the most representative objects from your personal work?

The cutlery, definitely, followed by the tables and chairs. I even designed a staircase for Alexandre Iolas’s house in Greece.

Your work, like François-Xavier’s, puts nature and animals centre stage. Can you tell us why?

I’ve also made some portraits, including one of Karl Lagerfeld, but nature remains my favourite subject. I live in the countryside, near Fontainebleau, and that’s where my studios are. Two of my grandchildren work with me. We make furniture, and we also produce some numbered works by François, because we’re still able to do that.

Do you work every day?

I work from 8.00 in the morning until midday, then from 1.30 until 5.00.

Do you recognise yourself as a craftswoman?

Yes, absolutely. Artist, craftswoman, they’re the same thing. The two terms have the same dictionary definition.

Who are your dealers now?

The Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, Ben Brown Fine Arts in London and Hong Kong, and Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand in Paris.

Does Peter Marino still give you commissions?

Yes, very much so. He recently ordered a chest of drawers for his bedroom and he was very satisfied with it. Peter still has a lot of objects made my François and me. He has some mirrors and a huge Choupatte, which is one of my symbolic works. There are the Ducks that he arranges here and there among the hydrangeas in his garden in Southampton, and I also made an enormous rabbit for his garden.

Niki de Saint Phalle lived nearby, as did Max Ernst, but Brancusi didn’t like him because he was so tall. Brancusi used to say that Max looked down on him, that he was sapping his vital energy.
Claude Lalanne on Constantin Brancusi

Who would you say your friends were?

We were very close to Constantin Brancusi, who used to live near our studio. In the evening he came to see us with plum brandy and his multicoloured cigarettes, you know, Sobranies. We smoked a huge amount in those days, and I still smoke. If I wasn’t abstaining in front of you, I’d be smoking right now.

What was Brancusi like?

He was impressive. Dressed in white. He was handsome and usually came on his own. We lived in a cul-de-sac. Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle lived nearby, as did Max Ernst, but Brancusi didn’t like him because he was so tall. Brancusi used to say that Max looked down on him, that he was sapping his vital energy. This was all back in the 1960s.

Did you lead a bohemian life?

Yes, we had a little studio, with a stove in the middle. For lunch we’d buy an enormous side of beef and cook it there. It was really delicious.

You also knew Marcel Duchamp.

Yes, his wife Teeny was one of my close friends. Before meeting Marcel, she was married to Pierre Matisse, who had a gallery in New York and was also the son of Henri Matisse. We also showed our works in his gallery in New York. Teeny and Pierre divorced, then she married Marcel Duchamp.

Do you have an exhibitions planned?

I’m coming back from an exhibition that was held in London, and I’m about to have one in St Moritz. What escapes me is the reason why there are so many exhibitions of furniture. For example, an exhibition of chairs and armchairs was held recently, but I wasn’t contacted to supply any of my furniture works.

What do you like best?

I like my friends, living in the country, the sun and flowers. I spend as little time as possible in Paris. My Paris apartment has no memories for me. I also like dogs a lot. I have a white Swiss shepherd and a little dappled dachshund.

Do you have the feeling that your work hasn’t had the recognition it deserved, and that you haven’t been understood?

No, it’s not a lack of understanding. It’s simply the fact that right now museums don’t appreciate us very much. I also think that the main players in the world of furnishing don’t really know my work.

Do you still work as much?

I love working, and I generally work every day in the studio where I make models by hand.

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