E ven ignoring pure aesthetics, the Giacometti brothers, Diego and Alberto, and husband and wife duo Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne – or “Les Lalanne” as they came to be known – are significant for the role they played in breaking down boundaries between fine and decorative arts, resulting in a wholesale rethink of the way in which we approach the classical canon.
In 1929 Man Ray facilitated a meeting between Alberto Giacometti and maître of Minimalism, Jean-Michel Frank, the ascetically inclined French decorator whose spartan, parchment-clad interiors were the acme of pared-back Parisian glamour. This was a truly formative moment, and together, Alberto and his brother began making a number of decorative objects, including lamps, sconces and vases, often in white plaster, a medium Frank favored for his minimally furnished schemes. Whilst initially, at least, Alberto accepted such commissions for reasons of economic necessity – or as he put it in an interview with critic André Parinaud, “in order to survive” – his approach to such utilitarian objects was no different to that of any other work.
There was often such an overlap apropos Giacometti’s relentless experimentation and artistic evolution that it’s almost impossible to say with any degree of certainty whether it was the decorative arts that influenced his sculptural practice or vice versa. In a letter to his gallerist Pierre Matisse in 1948, he again references the importance he attributed to such works: “I am able to make objects only because Diego works very well and deals with all aspects of casting, etc., but objects interest me hardly any less than sculpture, and there is a point at which the two touch.”
Alberto, as Jean Leymarie has written, discerned “no rift between the fine and decorative arts.” Thus he “exercised the same care in creating utilitarian vases as he did in making the fantastic constructions he had on exhibit at the galleries of dealers Pierre Loeb and Pierre Colle.” Coupe Ovale was executed at an important moment in Alberto’s career, as he was moving towards the end of his surrealist phase. “The pieces he created are like objects he exhumed from imaginary civilisations,” Thierry Pautot has described. Appearing at once like an ancient vessel, while at the same time avant-garde in its refined simplicity, Coupe Ovale is a work of supreme elegance.
“Objects interest me hardly any less than sculpture, and there is a point at which the two touch.”
Similarly, Diego was very much influenced by what he discovered on a trip to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo in 1927; the zoomorphic style of ancient Egyptian furniture and bronze votive cats inspired his famous Chat Maître d’Hôtel. Diego’s love of animals and for depicting them in his art can be traced back to his childhood in the small town of Stampa, amidst the Engadin mountains, where he grew up in rural simplicity. Called an “artisan-poet” by Leymarie, his only goal was to create beautiful, useful objects; the jovial animal silhouettes and twisting flora we see in his Arbre au Hibou gueridon are inherently bound up in the artist’s profound love of nature and native Alpine countryside.
Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne shared a similar affinity for the mythical and dreamlike, and in the transformation of natural forms to serve new purposes; deftly combining art and utility, ostriches become bar tables, frogs function as chairs and hippos house bathtubs. François-Xavier preferred animals, whereas Claude was horticulturally inclined, developing sinuous, organic shapes that she cast in galvanized metals. Both artists shared in creating a pioneering new language, reflecting a fundamental belief that the human, animal and vegetal worlds share a profound kinship.
François-Xavier’s playful and humorous sheep sculptures rendered in epoxy stone, Mouton de Pierre, have undoubtedly become a career-defining leitmotif – with collectors clamoring to snap up entire flocks. “I thought it would be fun to fill this big room with a flock of sheep,” he said, “it is, after all, easier to have a sculpture in your living room than a real sheep, and it’s even better if we can sit on it.”
Interestingly, much like the Giacometti brothers, François-Xavier was similarly influenced by antiquity; debuting his first flock under the moniker Pour Polytheme (For Polythemus), a reference to the passage from Homer’s Odyssey in which the cyclops, Polythemus, imprisons Odysseus and his compatriots, who escape the monster’s lair by clinging onto the bellies of gargantuan sheep.
“We were in tune with each other and yet also very distinct.”
While the couple shared a style that was radical in its reimagining of functionality, form and poetry, as Claude was at pains to point out, “We were in tune with each other and yet also very distinct.” François-Xavier worked with grand, simple forms, inspired by a job as an assistant at the Louvre, in the departments of ancient Egyptian and Assyrian art where he spent hours studying the animal sculptures; perhaps one might even draw parallels between the Louvre’s Apis Bull (379-361 BC) and the artist’s whimsical Vache Passage (Grand Modèle).
Claude found her muse in nature, fashioning works that are more intimate, ornamental and baroque – as seen in her “Bambiloba” settee and oversized Ginkgo furniture. By adding artful aspects to functional objects, she aimed to enrich life by injecting art into the everyday. Claude and François-Xavier rejected mid-20th-century abstraction, preferring to represent real-life subjects in a unique surrealist style, reflecting their belief that “the supreme art is the art of living.”
What unites Les Lalanne with Alberto and Diego Giacometti is that they fused sculpture with utilitarian, functional design; not to be treated with kid gloves, we touch them, open them, sit or lie on them, and even bathe in them. It was a truly revolutionary approach, combining technical expertise with unbridled creativity, and in doing so, blurring the boundaries between form and function, creating works that are universal and speak to us all.