Inside the fantastical world of Claude Lalanne

Collected by Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford among others, the 91-year-old is still charming the world with her exuberant yet fragile creations — as new exhibitions in New York and London testify


Claude Lalanne with Choupatte Géante, 2016. Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. © Claude Lalanne, 2016 .full-screen .image-preview { background-position: 50% 0%!important; } @media all and (min-width: 1700px) { .full-screen .image-preview { background-position: 50% 30%!important; } }

Imagine that Sleeping Beauty lived a long and productive life. Imagine that she took up welding. She’d be entirely at home in the atelier of Claude Lalanne. On the outskirts of Fontainebleau, Madame Lalanne, 91, lives and works in a kind of enchantment. Gates twisted out of golden twigs seem designed to delight an inquisitive child. In the yard, a towering bronze bear shows off packed and burnished curves as if auditioning for Jean Cocteau. Tucked among bamboo, an accommodating crocodile offers himself as a garden seat, laughing away at his own absurdity. 


Claude Lalanne, Fauteuils Entrelacs, 2015. Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. © Claude Lalanne, 2016

Lalanne is on the side of laughter. ‘I’d rather my art was smiling than severe,’ she says. ‘At the beginning, people didn’t really get the work. I think they get it now, though.’ This is an understatement. Earlier this year, Lalanne’s Lustre Structure Végétale, a shining wreath of branches busy with butterflies, went under the hammer at Christie’s Paris for €1,833,500. 

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Claude Lalanne (b. 1925), Broche Pomme Bouche, 1990. Édition. 4 x 3.5 cm (1½ x 1⅜ in). Estimate: €800-1,200. This lot is offered in First Open Home on 23 November 2016 at Christie’s in Paris

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Claude Lalanne (b. 1925), Pomme Bouche, le modèle créé en 1975. 13.5 cm (5¼ in) high. Estimate: €10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Design Vente du Soir on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in Paris

Lalanne’s jewellery — sinuous arrangements of tendrils, berries and leaves — is equally in demand: a brooch can go for €7,000, a necklace for €60,000. Yves Saint Laurent was a devoted fan of Lalanne’s work; Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford are all big collectors. A selection of Claude Lalanne’s works is offered in the Design Evening Sale in Paris on 22 November at Christie’s in Paris.

From 24 November to 27 January 2017 an exhibition at Ben Brown Fine Arts, London, presents new pieces by Claude Lalanne alongside sculptures by her late husband, François-Xavier Lalanne. The couple always styled themselves ‘Les Lalanne’ commercially, exhibiting together until François-Xavier’s death in 2008. [See our feature: 10 things to know about Francoise-Xavier and Claude Lalanne

Claude Lalanne (b. 1925), Table Basse Gingko, Grand modèle, 2011. 42 x 160 x 68 cm (16½ x 63 x 26¾ in). Estimate: €120,000-150,000. This lot is offered in Design Vente du Soir on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in Paris

Workers-in-tandem rather than collaborators, they found different paths through a shared, fantastical world. François-Xavier was theatrical, surrealistic (as a young couple, Les Lalanne hung out with Man Ray, Salvador Dalí and Jean Tinguely): his life-size rhinoceros (Rhinocrétaire) opens its flanks to reveal a writing desk, while Table Pied de Cerf  is a dining table poised on slim deer’s legs, and Toilette Mouche is a WC in the form of a buzzing fly.

Claude was more interested in the intimate processes of nature, developing an aesthetic that is sometimes fragile but just as often exuberant. Her Choupatte, a cabbage with chicken’s feet, was conceived as a gift for her husband, but achieved cult status when a variant of the sculpture appeared on the cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s 1976 album, L’Homme à Tête de Chou. A giant version of the marvellous cabbage, each leaf cast separately, appears in the Ben Brown show (see main image). ‘It’ll be too big to fit in the gallery,’ says the artist, with evident satisfaction. ‘It’ll have to go on the pavement.’ 

The exhibition also features Fauteuils Entrelacs, a pair of dainty, leafy thrones, two Fauteuils Crocodiles and Osiris, an occasional table (the occasion can only be guessed at) raised on extravagantly webbed and warty reptile legs. ‘The work is functional, I’m making things with a use,’ Lalanne points out. ‘I like that. Look up “artist” and “artisan” in the dictionary — they mean the same thing.’ 

Lalanne sees no reason to retire. Seven days a week she rises at 7am; by 8am, she is laying out her tools. She works with her daughter and granddaughter, who help with the heavy stuff, but in the atelier she is emphatically hands-on, controlling every process. Inspiration is gathered from her garden, fresh as the morning. ‘Every day,’ she says, ‘I walk in my garden. Every day, I wait to be surprised.’

Claude & François-Xavier Lalanne is at Ben Brown Fine Arts, London, from 24 November to 26 January 2017. Claude Lalanne: Bijoux is at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York until 23 December

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