Revered for their Surrealist whimsy, husband-and-wife sculptors François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne have attracted a following of serious art collectors, as Jason Mowen reports.

The work of husband-and-wife artists François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne sits somewhere between sculpture, furniture and Surrealist fantasy, and the couple — known as Les Lalanne — has had a small, almost cult-like following since their first show in 1964. The Paris exhibition included such seminal pieces as François-Xavier’s Rhinocrétaire (a life-size bronze rhino that opens to reveal a desk) and led to commissions including a set of fantastical silverware made by Claude for Salvador Dalí the following year. It was Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, however, who would become the Lalannes’ greatest patrons. The late couturier and his partner commissioned François-Xavier to make a futuristic two-tiered drinks table that became known as Bar YSL (1965), while Claude collaborated on the designer’s 1969 Empreintes collection, in which bronze breastplates cast from the body of model Veruschka were integrated into flowing couture gowns.

Bar YSL was the first in a series of commissions for Saint Laurent and Bergé that grew to become the world’s largest private collection of Lalanne. It was also part of the vast treasure trove of paintings, sculpture and furnishings amassed by the couple that went under the hammer with Christie’s in 2009, grossing a record-breaking €374 million.

With the exception of Andy Warhol, the Lalannes were the only contemporary artists featured in the collection. Sourcing their imagery from the natural world, the couple spoke a unique artistic language through distinct but complementary approaches under the shared signature of ‘Lalanne’. François-Xavier, who died in 2008 at the age of 81, would draw, then construct highly stylised wild animals, inspired by the art of Ancient Egypt and that of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi.

Claude, now 91, countered with a baroque, more intuitive spirit, casting and assembling whimsical cabbages, branches and ginkgo leaves, her electroplating techniques second to none.

In March last year, garden designer Madison Cox created a magical labyrinth as a backdrop to the latest Lalanne exhibition at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York. Cox — perhaps best known for the Marrakech gardens he designed for Saint Laurent and Bergé (Jardin Majorelle) and Marella Agnelli (Ain Kassimou) — channelled the fairytale atmosphere of the couple’s studio and garden at the edge of the forests of Fontainebleau, where life-size gorillas seemed to take tea with chicken-legged cabbages and other Lalanne hybrids. Beyond the labyrinth was a hall of mirrors, containing a version of the suite of copper-and-bronze pieces made for the salon de musique at Saint Laurent’s Rue de Babylone apartment. The couturier was so enchanted by the initial pair commissioned from Claude in 1974, he asked her, “Would you agree to cover the four walls of the room with mirrors?” Claude said she would be delighted, but cautioned that it would take a long time, perhaps 10 years. Saint Laurent responded, “Does it really matter?” The final piece was installed in 1985; with asymmetrical, twisting stems and large veined hosta leaves cast and chased in bronze, the 15 mirrors created a magnificent, slightly unnerving kaleidoscope of infinite reflections.

The most recognisable Lalanne creations, however, are François-Xavier’s Mouton sculptures, life-size sheep, made from the 1960s onwards. In December 2011, a flock of 10 epoxy-stone-and-bronze Lalanne sheep sold for US$7.5 million at Christie’s in New York — 10 times the estimate. Les Lalanne believed the role of artist and artisan should not be mutually exclusive, and it was this combination of artistic poetry, precise execution and the inherently playful nature of the couple’s work that resonated with such aesthetes as Saint Laurent and Bergé. Defying the usual parameters of categorisation for more than half a century, the Lalannes’ philosophy, if any, was best expressed in the words of François-Xavier: “The supreme art is the art of living.”