René Lalique: Father of Art Deco?
By Nicholas Dawes
René Lalique (French, 1860-1945) is best known for thousands of glass designs, but he was a master of two careers. The first, as a jeweler, largely during La Belle Époque, lasted until he was in his early fifties. While much of his later work, in glass, is readily identifiable as Art Deco, admirers prefer the contemporary term, le style Lalique.
I have never heard the term “Father of Art Deco” applied convincingly. Surely the complexity and sheer longevity of what we have come to embrace as the Art Deco movement severely weakens the case for a single parent. A paternity test eliminates most of the common candidates: Erté (unwittingly given the title by a clever dealer who “rediscovered” him forty years ago) may be more aptly called the father of Art Deco revival, Paul Poiret (more like an uncle in the garment business), Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann (too chic and a bit late to the party), Pierre Chareau (way too chic and not even at the party), and Paul Iribe (a dark horse with plenty of offspring but unlikely to be accepted by the family even if the test results were positive).
One name rarely given this questionable accolade may deserve it more than any: René Lalique. Lalique began his career in an impressionistic, japoniste Paris we can only dream of today. I like to think of him as a background figure in Gustave Caillebotte’s famous Paris Street; Rainy Day, painted in 1877 when Lalique was seventeen and beginning his apprenticeship at a nearby jeweler. “Nothing was more sublime,” said Victor Hugo. It was here that the seeds of Art Deco were planted into a deep and rich cultural soil that ensured growth to fruition a generation later. No father of the movement could have missed this formative time and place.
Through the years we know as La Belle Époque, Lalique evolved into the most successful and fashionable jeweler in the world, a status confirmed by his spectacular display at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. The Grand Palais had never seen such elegant jewels. “But where is the Art Deco?” you may ask. It is there, deeply rooted in the fundamental fabric of René Lalique’s early career.
Look into the drawings and you will find the seeds: Meticulous geometry, flora and fauna chosen for their elegant, symmetrical forms, superbly balanced colors, and a juxtaposition of materials rarely seen since the Renaissance. We have all heard how Art Deco evolved from Art Nouveau and organic design became geometric, but this is a grossly oversimplified and overplayed perspective. However, the remarkable drawing below, from about 1908, shows this transition over a few centimeters of BFK Rives parchment paper and perhaps a few minutes; Lalique’s style evolves from organic naturalism to geometric stylization. Imagine him working the petals of the aster, likely in a vase before him. We see him in two minds, old and new, Nouveau and Deco.
All progressive artists are in a constant state of transition, but this drawing pinpoints a defining moment, before the Ballets Russes rocked Paris, and at least five years before Paul Iribe saved the rose from sacrifice on the altar of the machine.1
Wine decanter and pair of Strasbourg glasses, c. 1928.
Table glass, often in high Art Deco fashion, was an essential part o Lalique’s commercial empire during the later 1920’s into depression years.
A remarkable drawing for an Aster perfume bottle, c. 1908. Lalique’s style in transition, depicted over a few centimeters and perhaps a few minutes, between naturalistic and geometrically stylized design.
Presentation with metal case for perfume by Lucien Lelong, inspired by the New York skyline and aimed at the American market, c. 1932.
The course of World War I played a critical role in the evolution of Art Deco, particularly the rapid advancement of new European cultural ideals that came with peace. Within two years of the armistice, Lalique opened a new factory in Alsace (regained as French territory after the war) complete with advanced machinery to blow, cast, and work hot and cold glass, much of which continues in operation today.
Lalique glass of the interwar years can be classified as Art Deco simply through its function. The onset of elegance into everyday life, evident in modern forms of travel, dress, makeup, and general demeanor, precipitated new consumer demands that Lalique met in style. Dressing table accessories––from hand mirrors and trinket boxes to atomizers, perfume burners, and bottles––were designed to be carried through an age of travel that Lalique supplied with all an elegant voyager could need. Artistes décorateurs used Lalique panels and lighting in every type of elegant interior, including luxury railway cars and ocean liners. An array of glass motoring mascots were designed to illuminate the radiator cap of the automobile as it sped ahead into an optimistic future. After a spin, one could enjoy everything for the cocktail hour: glasses and decanters, swizzle sticks to bring a champagne cocktail to life, ashtrays, and smoking accessories, even cocktail bars and tables were designed and made at Lalique’s factory. Architectural glass and lighting were without parallel in quality of design and execution.
Few individual designers were even present at both the 1900 and 1925 fairs, and none who were enjoyed the success and acclaim of René Lalique. In 1925, the millions who entered through Edgar Brandt’s main gates, La Porte d’Honneur, were met by Lalique’s extraordinary Les sources de France, a fifty-foot fountain of illuminated glass, the most admired and elegant feat of engineering on the grounds. His work was found in architecture and interiors throughout the fair, including two pavilions under the name R. Lalique et Compagnie.
Les sources de France fountain at the Paris Exposition of 1925
The exposition led to great commercial success for Lalique, notably expansion into the United States market, allowing the company to gain a valuable foothold prior to the Depression years. Many of the 1925 exhibits were vases, made either by blowing into hot metal molds or forcing the molten glass using a vertical power press, one of many innovative techniques developed and patented by Lalique. Production declined steadily through the 1930s and slowed during German occupation and the war years, but continued at the Alsace works until René Lalique’s death in 1945, three days after the official end of World War II.
The postwar years were difficult. Reconstruction began under René Lalique’s son Marc (French, 1900-1977), with a focus on the expanding United States market and reliance on Nina Ricci perfume bottles and accessories, produced under the guidance of Marc’s business partner, Robert Ricci. The elegant Art Deco
sensibility was largely absent from the modern line, and remained absent until recently, though the company continued to make several older models well into the 1990s, including some motoring mascots (offered as paperweights), quaint desk accessories including rocker blotters and letter openers, and a large number of ashtrays. Following Marc’s death in 1977 the reins passed to his daughter Marie-Claude (1935-2003), whose style was more evocative of the Art Nouveau movement. In the spirit of 1970s artistic freedom, any trace of Art Deco vanished from new lines.
In 2008, the Lalique Company entered an optimistic chapter with its takeover by Silvio Denz, a Swiss fragrance industry entrepreneur who had admired and collected perfume bottles by René Lalique. His collection, the finest in the world, is now on view at the Musée Lalique in Wingen-sur-Moder, opened in 2011 and located a few minutes from the Lalique factory. Together with the nearby Maison Lalique, the Villa Lalique, a boutique hotel and restaurant converted from René Lalique’s former residence, the museum has brought new attention to the art of Lalique, and has successfully revived interest in the Art Deco appeal of his 1920s designs. Denz’s direction, Lalique reintroduced several classic vase models, including Languedoc and Serpent. In addition, the company offers several vase designs with no direct reference to the period but with clear Art Deco influence. The most striking Art Deco revival at Lalique, however, is in architectural designs, what the company calls Art de Vivre. Suites of living room and bedroom furniture, panels and screens set with glass, door hardware, lighting of every description, and even illuminated fountains are available, together with automobile mascots, perfume bottles, and table glass originally designed by René Lalique, some offered in a new range of colors and sizes. the company goes from here is difficult to predict, but I hope that a few Art Deco designs proven perennially popular will persist, and keep René Lalique’s legacy alive for generations to come.
Rene Lalique Victoire automobile mascot, c. 1928, length 10.25 in. This example shows the desirable amethyst tint, evidence of exposure to sunlight, and is fitted on original chrome illuminating mount supplied by Breves in Knightsbridge, London.
Languedoc vase by Lalique, c. 2012. This modern version is almost identical to the original 1929 version, differing in glass type and weight. Unlike the original, the new model is also available in other colors and sizes.
About the Author:
Nicholas Dawes is a decorative arts professional and a leading expert on the work of René Lalique. He has forty years’ experience as a dealer in Lalique, as an auctioneer, and department head at Phillips, Sotheby’s, and Heritage Auctions in New York. Author of four works on decorative arts and many articles, he lectures widely, and has taught at several universities. In 1989 he curated the exhibition Lalique: A Century of Glass for the Modern World. He is familiar to many as a regular appraiser for Antiques Roadshow on PBS.
All photos: Heritage Auctions
(1) Paul Iribe, protégé of Paul Poiret and formative figure in the Art Deco movement, is known for his work for Jeanne Lanvin and, in later life, as the lover of Coco Chanel. His stylized rose, a prelude to much Art Deco design, appeared in about 1912 in an illustration. He warned against “sacrificing the rose on the altar of the machine” as a caution against wanton geometric stylization.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1, Spring 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.