From their first joint exhibition of sculpture in 1967, Claude Lalanne and her husband, François-Xavier Lalanne (who died in 2008 at age 81), may have confounded some in the art world—their work was, for the most part, meant to be used—but they also attracted a devoted following. Among their iconic works are François-Xavier’s woolly sheep sculptures (known as Moutons de Laine), which double as ottomans; his Rhinocrétaire, a massive bronze rhinoceros that is also a desk; Claude’s Choupattes, bronze cabbages perched on chicken feet; and her bronze-and-copper chandeliers of entwined branches adorned with butterflies. (While the couple seldom collaborated, they branded themselves collectively as Les Lalanne early on.)
These surrealist-tinged, nature-inspired works, which are both mysterious and whimsical, clicked with sophisticated collectors like Guy and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild; Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé; and Jane Holzer, who bought her first pair of sheep in 1967. The decorators Jacques Grange and François Catroux and the architect Peter Marino spread the Lalanne gospel by introducing the artists to their clients and by collecting the work themselves. (Marino’s collection includes more than 40 of the Lalannes’ outdoor sculptures.) Tom Ford and Reed and Delphine Krakoff likewise fell in love with the work, and by the early 2000s, these tastemakers’ stamps of approval had helped expand the Lalanne market beyond a small circle of connoisseurs, pushing prices into the six figures.
But those days seem quaint now. Last September at Christie’s in Paris, a rather unassuming low table made by Claude in 2008 sold for $1 million as part of the estate sale of the great decorator Alberto Pinto. Then, in November at a Sotheby’s auction of Grange’s collections of art and design, one of François-Xavier’s Les Autruches—a bar that features two ostriches made of Sèvres porcelain—sold for $7.6 million, more than six times its high estimate. A pair of 1969 Moutons de Laine brought $1.85 million. The day before the Sotheby’s sale, Christie’s sold a large bronze and copper mirror by Claude, framed with branches and leaves, for around $2.1 million. And the market shows no signs of cooling. “As prices go up,” says Paul Kasmin, who, along with Ben Brown in London and Jean-Gabriel Mitterand in Paris, is one of the premier dealers of the artists’ work, “more and more people want Lalanne and don’t care where they get it.”
Prices for the Lalannes’ work had been rising steadily through the 2000s, but for art-market observers, the turning point was Christie’s 2009 auction of Saint Laurent and Bergé’s collections of art and furniture. A new generation of collectors, says Sonja Ganne, Christie’s international head of design, saw the opportunity to be “a part of history, of someone’s taste.” Hence an abstract, sculptural bronze bar that Saint Laurent commissioned from François-Xavier in 1965 sold for $3.5 million, while an ensemble of 15 mirrors Claude made for Saint Laurent and Bergé’s Paris music room fetched $2.4 million. An exhibition the following year of the Lalannes’ work at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, curated by Marino, fanned the flames even further. And in 2012, Christie’s sold a flock of ten epoxystone sheep for a record $7.5 million. As Suzanne Demisch, a partner in the gallery Demisch Danant, observes, “The sheep just go, go, go— they’re a symbol of an era of connoisseurship.”
But long before the era of coveted sheep, it was a heady time for the art world. In the 1950s, when the Lalannes had their studio in the Impasse Ronsin, a decrepit Parisian cul-de-sac, their neighbors included an elderly Constantin Brancusi, who would stop by in the evenings with cigarettes and liquor. They designed window displays for Christian Dior, where they met Saint Laurent, who later incorporated body parts—cast by Claude from the supermodel Veruschka—into his 1969 Empreintes collection. The Lalannes came from very different artistic backgrounds. François-Xavier was a classically trained painter, and his stint as a guard in the Louvre’s Egyptian galleries may have influenced the monumental quality of his bronze creatures. Animals, he said, “are the only beings through whom one can enter another world.” Claude came from a musical family and studied architecture before turning to sculpture, which for her was more about finding forms, like leaves and flowers, that captured her imagination. “The best way to explain something is to do it,” she declared in a 1974 interview in Elle.
But the couple’s art seems to strike a universal chord. Reed Krakoff, now the artistic director at Tiffany & Co., became such a fan of the Lalannes— for them, he says, “life, work, and art are inseparable”—that he published a book on their oeuvre in 2007 with Kasmin and Brown. His and Delphine’s favorite pieces are two Pommes Bouche—bronze apples with human lips—for which Claude made casts of their mouths. Holzer, who in the ’70s had a company that made furniture by artists, produced François-Xavier’s foam-and-leather bed in the form of a can of sardines. “I still have a couple of the sardines,” she says, and she’s still buying the Lalannes’ work. “It’s like a drug.”
The New York designer Brian J. McCarthy uses the same comparison, adding that the work “moves in and becomes part of the family.” McCarthy is collaborating with Claude on a commission for a house in Switzerland that includes a staircase, railings, and chandeliers. He notes that Claude, now in her 90s, is still working at the Lalannes’ farm in Ury, France, turning out pieces at a fast clip. “Everybody is clamoring for inventory,” he notes. (François-Xavier’s work, by comparison, is far more scarce.) But no matter how much money is chasing how few pieces, one fact doesn’t seem to change. As Kasmin says, “At the end of the day, there’s so little art that goes that deep into people’s psyche.”