I meet Claude Lalanne in her apartment on the top floor of a Haussmann building in the Boulevard Raspail in Paris. Most of the time Claude lives in her house in the country, where she has her studios and where she lived for many years with her husband François, but she comes to Paris from time to time to see her friends and her dealer Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand.
We sit at a little round table on some metal chairs with bamboo decoration, Bamboo Leaf Chairs that she designed several years ago.
Claude for many years you and your husband François were known by a single name, “Les Lalanne”. How come?
When I started I was just working on making decorative objects, such as some birds for Le Printemps department store. I asked François to help me, we were not yet married. We began to have really a lot of orders and many decorators used our work, but they put their own names on it instead of ours. We were annoyed by that, and an American sculptor friend, Jimmy Metcalf, told us you have to change your status and you have to become artists, and for that you need to have a show under your own name in an art gallery.
So what happened?
We worked together to make an exhibition in the gallery of a friend, Jeanine Goldsmith. Life was very complicated for us while we were preparing for the exhibition as we had to keep on working at the same time in order to survive. After about a year we were ready for the exhibition.
What did you show?
François had sculpted a big rhinoceros in copper, I had made a Choupatte (a cabbage with the legs of a chicken) and one of the other things I made was a little watch with an onion inside and the onion was telling the time. It is funny because some years after that I became friendly with Salvador Dali and used to go and see him at Le Meurice hotel in Paris. He asked me if I could lend him the onion watch, and I did but he never gave it back, which I found very upsetting. But one day his wife Gala called and said will you please come and see us at Le Meurice, and she gave me back the watch. By the way Salvador Dali asked me also to create a set of cutlery for him, which I did, and in a book about his work he put the knife and the fork and the spoon there under his own name! It was my work, I did that, and I could say that cutlery is among the icons of my work.
How did you become so friendly with Salvador Dali?
I think because as I said he asked me to show him my cutlery, and then I was pleased when Gala called me and made him give back the watch that he had taken. He was fun. I used to go with François to see him at Le Meurice, but he also came to our house. He would bring two wild animals with him, and I said tell me exactly when you are coming because I have to put my dogs in a safe place. When he came he saw François’ rhinoceros and he said that he wanted it, but even though he knew Dali liked to receive gifts François never gave it to him.
What else did you do?
As I said this was our first show, with his rhinoceros and my cutlery, and Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle came to see the exhibition with the Greek art dealer Alexander Iolas. A couple of weeks later Iolas called us and said, “Mes enfants, would you like to work with me?” We immediately said yes and we worked with Iolas until he died.
How did the idea of making the sculpture series called Sheep come about?
François came up with the white sheep with black faces and black legs made of patinated black bronze. He had been invited to make a large exhibition for a show in a museum, and he wanted to do something that would be astonishing and grab everybody’s attention, and he had the idea of making twenty-four of these sheep.
Where are they now?
I think that our first collector was Gunter Sachs, the German husband of Brigitte Bardot, who bought the twenty four sheep. Later Mr. Gianni Agnelli also ordered twenty sheep for his Milan apartment which was designed by the Italian architect Gae Aulenti, and after that the sheep had a lot of success all over. The sheep are also in the Beaubourg Museum, but I must say, and it’s quite unfortunate, but we are not very much appreciated by museums. I don’t think they really know how to categorise us or how to exhibit our work.
Did you have a very close and friendly relationship with Yves St Laurent?
Yes, Yves asked me to make two mirrors for him and one night when we were having dinner together he said to me why don’t you do the whole room with mirrors. This was in his apartment in rue de Babylone.
How did you meet the American architect Peter Marino?
Peter ordered some works of ours to put in apartments that he was decorating all over the world. He asked for chairs and the rhinoceros and other objects. Later he asked me to create a very large round banquette, and in the middle of it there was a space that was filled with blue hydrangeas. That was created for the Dior shops all over the world.
Did they also put your work in other fashion shops?
Yes, Chanel ordered a small sculpture for their boutiques.
You seem to have a strong connection to the fashion world?
Yes, also Karl Lagerfeld is one of my close friends.
Your husband died six or seven years ago and yet you have kept on working?
Always working! I have made several exhibitions and in all the exhibitions that I have made, even after François passed away, there are always some of his works together with mine.
What are the objects that most represent your own work?
Certainly cutlery, and then tables and chairs. I even did a staircase for the house of Iolas in Greece.
Both your work and the work of François feature nature and animals. Why?
I also did a few portraits, including the one of Karl Lagerfeld, but I prefer nature. I live in the countryside nearby Fontainebleau and this is where I have my studios. Two of my grandchildren work with me. We make furniture and we also produce some numbered editions of François’ work because we can still do that.
Do you work every day?
I work from 8 o’clock in the morning until 12 and from 1.30 to 5 in the afternoon.
Do you think of yourself as an artisan?
Yes, sure, artists and artisans are the same thing. It is the same definition in the dictionary.
Who are your dealers today?
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 commission your work?
Yes, of course. Recently he ordered a commode for his bedroom and he was very pleased. Peter has a lot of François’ and my work. He has mirrors and a huge Choupatte, it is one of my symbolic works. He has the ducks that he sneaks in among the hydrangeas in his garden in Southampton, and I also made a huge rabbit for his garden.
Who were your friends?
We were very good friends with Brancusi, who used to live nearby our studio. At night he would come and see us and bring Prune alcohol and those multi-coloured cigarettes, Balkan Sobranies. We smoked a lot then, and I still smoke. If it wasn’t that I respect you I would be smoking now!
What was Brancusi like?
Formidable. Dressed in white. He was handsome and used to come by himself. We were living in a cul-de-sac and Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle were living nearby, and also Max Ernst, but Brancusi didn’t like Max because he was too tall. Brancusi used to say that Max was looking down on him, that he was sucking his vital energy. This happened in the 60s.
Were you living a Bohemian life?
Yes, we had a small atelier with a stove in the middle, and for lunch we used to buy a big côte de boeuf and cook it there and it was delicious.
You also knew Marcel Duchamp well?
Yes, Teeny his wife was a great friend of mine. Before Marcel she was married to Pierre Matisse, who had a gallery in New York and was the son of Henri Matisse. By the way we exhibited our work in his gallery in New York. Teeny divorced Pierre then married Duchamp.
Do you have any exhibitions coming up soon?
I just had one in London, and soon I will have one in St. Moritz. What I don’t understand is why there are so many furniture exhibitions, for instance there was recently an exhibition of chairs and armchairs, but they never ask me for a piece of my furniture.
What are the things you like the most?
I love my friends, I like to live in the countryside, I like sunshine and flowers, and I spend as little time as possible in Paris. In my apartment in Paris I have no souvenirs, I keep all the souvenirs of my life in the country, but my friends like to come and be with me in this apartment. I also like dogs very much and I have a White Swiss Shepherd and a small Teckel Arlequin.
Do you feel your work has not been properly recognised and that you are not well understood?
No, it is not that we are not understood. It’s just that for the time being museums don’t like us very much. I also think that people in the furniture world are not really aware of my work.
Do you still love your work?
I adore my work, and I normally work in the atelier every day, where I create models with my hands.
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Paris, February 9th 2017
Claude Lalanne images are © the artist, her representatives, Les Lalanne, & the photographers.