Origin of Their Species

Precursors to today’s edgy art-design crossovers, Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne have always been a breed apart.

Although Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne are two of the art world's most original designer-sculptors, until quite recently they were among its best-kept secrets. The French husband and wife have worked side by side for more than half a century, often collaborating, making art that is harmonious and complementary without losing their individuality. He is best known for his animal sculptures and furniture, especially his famous sheep chairs; she for nature-inspired furniture, such as gingko-leaf tables and benches and chandeliers cast from tree branches. Together the couple is known simply as Les Lalanne.

Claude and F.X. (as he is often called) have always charted their own course, oblivious to the crosscurrents of passing trends. They were decorative artists when the term was derogatory, they worked figuratively in an age of abstraction, and they kept the Surrealist spirit alive when it was perfectly passé. In many ways they are the godparents of the current generation of very different artist-designers—people like Marc Newson and Ron Arad, who blur the line between furniture and sculpture.

Now that the worlds of contemporary art and design have caught on to the Lalannes, collectors are clamoring for their work. The couple's recent shows at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York and Ben Brown Fine Arts in London were huge successes. Coach president Reed Krakoff is a big fan, as is Yves Saint Laurent cofounder and auction house owner Pierre Bergé. (Coach sponsored a book on the Lalannes, published last year to accompany the shows.) Tom Ford had Claude make a desk for his recently opened flagship in New York. And architect Peter Marino, who has been collecting their work for 30 years, keeps them backlogged with projects such as the bronze stag he commissioned from F.X. for Chanel's new store in Beverly Hills.

"The Lalannes' work has everything I look for in sculpture—the original expression of individual perceptions," Marino says. "Their foundation in nature is underscored by a surrealistic sense of humor and a timelessness."

In the fifties the Lalannes' Montparnasse studio was next to Constantin Brancusi's, and he became a friend and artistic mentor. From the master they learned invaluable lessons—about distilling form down to its essence, respecting materials, and the importance of painstakingly hand-polishing stone and bronze. Most of all they absorbed his religious dedication to the daily practice of making art, viewing it as something that's as necessary to life as breathing and eating.

Claude and F.X., both in their early eighties, have lived near Fontainebleau, France, since 1967, in a converted farmhouse among a warren of old stone stables, barns, and courtyards. Walled rose gardens are filled with a menagerie of their sheep, owls, frogs, giant carp, monkeys, deer, and bears—all cast and welded in bronze and copper. They work in adjacent stone ateliers with large glass walls, joined by a small team of longtime assistants, welders, and fabricators. "We each have our own work so our studios are separate, but our exhibitions are joint," Claude says.

In the studio she plays Lennon to her husband's McCartney. A tender Dadaist with an acid wit, Claude designs using visual puns and dreamlike juxtapositions. Her Caroline enceinte (Caroline Pregnant), from 1969–78, is a life-size bronze nude cast from a female model, topped by a head of cabbage. Pomme-Bouche (Apple-Mouth), a bronze fruit with smiling lips from 1975, is both unsettling and playfully disarming. And her 1994 pair of Croconsoles look like scaly crocodile skins draped over a base of swirling tendrils.

F.X.'s sensibility, meanwhile, is more idyllic and romantic. As an artist he has probably shepherded more creatures than anyone since Noah. Many are polymorphous and function as furniture, though they are far from practical. His creations include a rhino desk, a bull bureau, topiary boars, a baboon stove, a crane lamp, dove chairs, and an elephant fountain. Other pieces are exquisite sculptures, ranging in scale from miniature to monumental: stags, gorillas, rabbits, and, of course, sheep, which have been his leitmotif since the sixties. I defy anyone to behold his flock (he's done versions in wool, in bronze, and in cementlike epoxy stone) without cracking a smile.

"The animal world constitutes the richest and most varied source of forms on the planet," F.X. says, by way of explaining his obsession. "Furthermore, it provides a gigantic vocabulary of signs and metaphors. And do not forget that animals are man's oldest companions."

These octogenarian enfants terribles have never lost their sly wit nor their joie de la création. Their work is fresh and yet so timeless that it looks equally at home in a rustic farmhouse, a hip boutique, or a museum gallery. And while the couple is suddenly fashionable after half a century, it hasn't changed how they work. The Lalannes found their artistic path early on and they've stuck to it ever since.

Select works by Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne are available through the Paul Kasmin Gallery (293 Tenth Ave., New York; 212-563-4474; paulkasmingallery.com), Ben Brown Fine Arts (21 Cork St., London; 44-207/734-8888; benbrown finearts.com), and JGM Galerie (79 Rue du Temple, Paris; 33-1/43-26-12-05; jgmgalerie.com).