‘My first design for this realization was a hippopatomus-bathtub. Not a hippopatomus, not a bathtub, but the two together. And anyhow, a bathtub and a hippopatomus make a better marriage than a bathtub and a zebra’.
– François-Xavier Lalanne
For Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, the husband-and-wife artist-artisan duo, form only follows function where the latter’s purpose is to spark imagination, to incite oneiric reverie. This was apparent as early as 1964, when the couple’s first joint-solo show Zoophites opened at Jeanine Restany’s Galerie J in Paris, and where James Metcalf, their neighbor the American sculptor, was delighted by works 'useful to the extent that you find them useful' and 'unique as every one of us' (quoted in D. Abadie, op. cit., p. 297). Among the works exhibited were Claude’s Choupattes, or Claw Cabbages, and early jewelry, as well as François-Xavier’s La Mouche, a gigantic brass fly with Plexiglas wings under which a hand-crafted toilet hides. After an extended run, the exhibition garnered international acclaim along with the attention of gallerist Alexander Iolas. In October 1966, his Paris gallery exhibited the couple’s works; it was then that the couple first used the shared moniker 'Les Lalanne', signifying that although they worked independently from one another, their practice was tethered by a creative osmosis. The following year Iolas’s New York gallery presented works from their first American show at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in 1970, Les Lalanne returned to Iolas in Paris for a show, including this magnificent unique Hippopotame I bathtub.
Such objects evince Les Lalanne’s strong desire, developed early in their career, to 'de-sanctify’ art, to break down the distinction between sculpture—pieces intended for contemplation—and objects—pieces intended for use (P. d’Elme, op. cit., p. 60). The resultant works communicate an awareness of historical styles, ranging from classical to baroque and art nouveau, given form through a high level of precision craftsmanship, with each piece produced by hand. François-Xavier, for his part, adapted animal forms to functional ends, transfiguring monkeys into cabinets, elephants into lamps, and sheep into his famous flocks of woolen stools. ‘Animals are the centre of our vocabulary because they are so very varied’, he said, noting that ‘Because it has been such a long time that animals have cohabitated on this earth with mankind, we have invented an entire dictionary of metaphors for them, to make [them] mean completely different things’ (quoted by A. Dannatt, Claude & François-Xavier Lalanne, exh. cat., Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, 2007, p. 9).
Perhaps the most brilliant of François-Xavier’s metamorphoses from animalia to functional object is his Hippopotame I—a life-size incarnation of the African ‘river horse’ contains a sink and vanity folded into its cavernous maw, and a full bathtub stowed in its body. Regarding its conception in 1968, the artist noted that the piece ‘was done the day it was designed’, stating: ‘My first design for this realization was a hippopatomus-bathtub. Not a hippopatomus, not a bathtub, but the two together. And anyhow, a bathtub and a hippopatomus make a better marriage than a bathtub and a zebra’ (d'Elme, op, cit., p. 68). Measuring more than nine feet long and standing over four feet high, the piece allows bathers to adopt the semi-aquatic milieu of its animal inspiration, transforming the familiar ritual of the bath into an exotic and surreal act of imagination. François-Xavier meticulously constructed the body with the aid of a single assistant, using metalwork techniques both old and modern and with great thought given to every weld, hinge, piece of hardware, and patina. Its functional form is sheathed in brilliantly polished brass, glinting and glimmering to recall the sparkle of sun on water. For the artist, concerned that fine art had attained the status of a sanctified object, such a transmutation dismantled the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. As he himself explained:
'In the art world there is a danger of what we call "devotion", a tendency to practice devotion before works of art, admiring and venerating them without judging them. They become objects of devotion even if you can’t see them very well in the museum. For us, to make a sculpture you can...[use]..., already gives you a familiarity with it' (Dannat, ibid.).
This work is well-loved for its creative practicality, its unexpected but not impossible purpose, and of course its unironic humor. It was created at the same time as the equally celebrated blue resin Hippopotame I, commissioned by the artist Marcel Duchamp and his wife Teeny. François-Xavier noted that the Duchamp piece’s color was that of ‘accessories of California swimming pools! And it is called ‘Mediterranean blue’. People start dreaming when they see that !’ (d'Elme, op. cit., p. 68). Interestingly, the artist might have dreamt up this this design as early as 1948, inspired by a small blue faience hippo in the collection of the Louvre, where he worked as a museum guard for several years.
Today, the work of Les Lalanne can be found in major museum collections including Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, the Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, and the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. It has been coveted by collectors and designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford, Peter Marino, Karl Lagerfeld and Hubert de Givenchy. The couple was also the subject of a major retrospective at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 2010, and their career and legacy will be explored at the Clarke Institute in Massachusetts in 2020.