Working Animals: The Menagerie of Les Lalanne

It was in 1952 that François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne first collided. It was the start of a partnership that would last over five decades, sending ripples through the art world. Their romance began in Montparnasse, with supporting characters like Constantin Brâncuși, who would drop by the couple’s home late in the evening bearing vodka, cigarettes, and plums to fuel the conversation. Salvador Dalí, Man Ray, and Niki de Saint Phalle were drawn into their orbit as well, undoubtedly informing François-Xavier and Claude’s burgeoning fascination with the surreal.

The couple married in 1967, fusing Francois-Xavier – the painter – and Claude – the architect – into the creative force that was ‘Les Lalanne.’ Once they moved in together, François-Xavier shifted away from painting and towards his wife’s more sculptural approach to art. The pair worked on their own individual projects for the most part, though it’s easy to see the stream of inspiration pinballing back and forth between their oeuvres. François-Xavier leaned towards zoomorphic subjects, while Claude was more horticulturally inclined. Though, both artists shared in creating a pioneering new language with their sculptural works, drawing from the world around them and rearticulating these familiar forms into joyful, witty, and ultimately beautiful incarnations.

Claude was drawn to creating jewellery, which she forged using the electroplating technique. It was a novel approach whereby she started with organic material – most often plants – and electronically fused a copper coating onto it. She took to larger works as well, creating life-sized sculptures like ‘L’Homme à Tête De Chou’ – or ‘The Man with the Cabbage Head’ – which the infamous French singer, Serge Gainsbourg took notice of. He was so touched by the piece that he created an album by the same name, with an image of Claude’s sculpture gracing the cover.

François-Xavier leaned into this organically led approach to creating art. One of his most famous works was an artificial flock of sheep. Naturally, we may wonder why a person would feel drawn to reiterate what already exists. When asked, François-Xavier plainly remarks, “I thought that it would be funny to invade that big living room with a flock of sheep” – sounds like a good enough reason to me. He goes on to say, “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”. You’ve got to admire his joie de vivre. He originally entitled the work, ‘Pour Polytheme’, a reference to the passage from Homer’s Odyssey in which Ulysses and his comrades blind the cyclops, Polyphemus and flee his cave by hugging onto the bellies of gargantuan sheep.

François-Xavier’s oeuvre, however, extended far beyond mythological sheep. He also created more functional objects, like his fantastical ‘Bird-Bed’. He hit his stride when he married his own zoomorphic sculptural practice with Claude’s casting techniques. He designed enthralling pieces of furniture, like the ‘Rhino-Desk’, a sculpture that served as a drop-down writing desk, complete with gaping jaws that swallowed coins up into a piggybank.

François-Xavier’s ‘Chat Polymorphe’ is similarly enchanting. The piece takes the form of a hooved cat, sporting the tail of a fish as well as great wings that spread to reveal a bar. His menagerie of gleaming polymorphic creatures is nothing short of magical, transfiguring everyday rituals into spellbinding spectacles.

There was a wonderful give-and-take between Claude and François-Xavier’s art, their oeuvres weaving together to mind-bending effect. Though, the partnership they shared was equally magnetic. The couple even attracted the attention of fashion great, Yves Saint Laurent, creating pieces for the Paris apartment he shared with Pierre Bergé. Saint Laurent was not alone in his affection for their work – Gianni Agnelli and Valentino were also fans. Although Claude and François-Xavier’s relationship with Saint Laurent was unique. The trio eventually developed a warm and lasting friendship and a love for collaborating as a group. They even worked together on Saint Laurent’s A/W69 collection, François-Xavier concocting a heady ambience of artfully articulated animals and Claude creating jewellery as well as casts of the models’ bodies to be worn as breastplates.

The universe that François-Xavier and Claude spun defies words. Their emphatically intuitive, unrelentingly eccentric artworks are dispatches from life within a dazzling word of their own making. They were free of creative bounds and full of a love for what François-Xavier considered ‘the supreme art’: the art of living. The works of Les Lalanne are what you get when your heart is well and truly in it every step of the way. And so, we’re left with a herd of imaginative, poetic creations with a sense of humour as well as a certain magic. That, and a reminder that enchantment is not so rare a commodity. It hides in plain sight.




Text by Annabel Colterjohn