The Lalique mystique still captivates collectors

To say that René Lalique was a gifted artist is something of an understatement. Lalique was that rare combination of design genius and prolific innovator, whose creations brought him acclaim during his lifetime, and whose legacy is still the focus of collector fascination today.

Think of this: At age 47, when many men would be looking down the road to retirement after decades of creative endeavors, he launched a glass-making empire that is without equal. And then, less than a score of years after his death, he was almost forgotten.

Despite the attacks of critics like architect Adolf Loos, who in 1908 decried the influence of the Art Nouveau movement in general, the environment in which Lalique thrived was one that nurtured some of the greatest design trends in the new 20th century. Lalique was in distinguished company.

When he opened his glass factory in 1907, Lalique’s contemporaries included another influential glassmaker, Emile Gallé; American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany; Antoni Gaudi, the great Spanish architect; Alphonse Mucha, the Czech printmaker; Gustav Klimt, the Austrian painter; and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scottish designer.

Like the cryptic images of M.C. Escher, which morph from simple drawings to living creatures to fantasy and back, Lalique’s menagerie was a constantly evolving brood of vegetation, insects, fish, birds, and beasts, overseen by a chorus of romantic figures. It seemed there was no facet of the natural world that Lalique couldn’t transform into objects of color and light that are anything but utilitarian:

• The swarming school of fish that encircles “Formose.”

• The regal grasshoppers captured on “Sauterelles.”

• The mute parakeets sitting like sentinels on “Ceylan” and “Perruches.”

It’s amazing to think of it now, but by the mid-1950s, the works of Lalique and his contemporaries were widely regarded as no more than a footnote in design history. The creations that had seemed so revolutionary and stunning in the first quarter of the 20th century were now seen as quaint and outdated reminders of an era between the World Wars.

It was not until the late 1960s and early ’70s that a devoted group of collectors emerged to put Lalique’s work into the proper perspective.

René Lalique, 1860-1945

René Jules Lalique was born on April 6, 1860, in the village of Ay, in the Champagne region of France. In 1862, his family moved to the suburbs of Paris.

In 1872, Lalique began attending College Turgot where he began studying drawing with Justin-Marie Lequien. After the death of his father in 1876, Lalique began working as an apprentice to Louis Aucoc, who was a prominent jeweler and goldsmith in Paris.

Lalique moved to London in 1878 to continue his studies. He spent two years attending Sydenham College, developing his graphic design skills.

He returned to Paris in 1880 and worked as an illustrator of jewelry, creating designs for Cartier, among others. In 1884, Lalique’s drawings were displayed at the National Exhibition of Industrial Arts, organized at the Louvre.

At the end of 1885, Lalique took over Jules Destapes’ jewelry workshop. Lalique’s design began to incorporate translucent enamels, semiprecious stones, ivory, and hard stones.

In 1889, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, the jewelry firms of Vever and Boucheron included collaborative works by Lalique in their displays.

In the early 1890s, Lalique began to incorporate glass into his jewelry, and in 1893 he took part in a competition organized by the Union Centrale des Arts Decoratifs to design a drinking vessel. He won second prize.

Lalique opened his first Paris retail shop in 1905, near the perfume business of François Coty. Coty commissioned Lalique to design his perfume labels in 1907, and he also created his first perfume bottles for Coty.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Lalique continued to experiment with glass manufacturing techniques, and mounted his first show devoted entirely to glass in 1911.

During World War I, Lalique’s first factory was forced to close, but the construction of a new factory was soon begun in Wingen-sur-Moder, in the Alsace region. It was completed in 1921, and still produces Lalique crystal today.

In 1925, Lalique designed the first “car mascot” (bouchons de radiateur, or hood ornament) for Citroën, the French automobile company. For the next six years, Lalique would design 29 models for companies such as Bentley, Bugatti, Delage, Hispano-Suiza, Rolls Royce, and Voisin.

Lalique’s second boutique opened in 1931, and this location continues to serve as the main Lalique showroom today.

René Lalique died on May 5, 1945, at the age of 85. His son, Marc, took over the business at that time, and when Marc died in 1977, his daughter, Marie-Claude Lalique Dedouvre, assumed control of the company. She sold her interest in the firm and retired in 1994.

She died on April 14, 2003, at the age of 67.