Ice-cool glass objets d’art by Rene Lalique are red-hot collectibles. Yet, it is one of the lesser-known genres — car mascots — that crystallizes the epoch-changing forces that transformed the 1920s into the Roaring ’20s.
Their inspiration was the post-World War decade’s premiere mover and shaker, the automobile. The dynamics resulting from the ever-accelerating availability helped shape and define the Art Deco era, says Lalique National Spokesperson Craig Zehms. The world was infatuated with cars. Furthermore, this love affair was grand enough to reach out and embrace related spinoffs, “especially the concept of speed, industrial technology and the sleek, new aesthetics which expressed these elements.” And, in all these areas, Lalique’s slick, stylized and slightly frivolous mascots scored bull’s-eyes.
Created to perch on the windshield cowl, spine of the hood or grille-top, the exposed radiator cap flaunted by cars of that era — those 27 mascots could be considered the ultimate in Haute Deco. Sired by the automobile, this art form was birthed by the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels. This seminal event, the first international exhibition organized solely for the applied arts in more than 100 years, later gave its abbreviated name to an entire design movement: Art Deco.
Art Deco Style
“Lalique’s two pavilions at the Exposition flanked that of car manufacturer Andre Citroen,” says Nicholas M. Dawes, television’s Antiques Roadshow specialist and author of “Lalique Glass” (Crown Publishers, 1986). Moreover, both Frenchmen were kindred spirits in that their pioneering use of automation, mass production and merchandising had, respectively, changed the luxury glass and automobile industries. The proximity of these two innovative titans of design proved serendipitous.
The 1925 Paris Exposition, Rene Lalique’s frequent contact with Andre Citroen and his exposure to Citroen’s phenomenally successful five-horsepower Cinq Chevaux showcased at the Citroen pavilion triggered the first two car mascots. One, an exclusive, five rearing horses aptly named Cinq Chevaux (Five Horses), was commissioned by Citroen for his personal limousine.
Dawes, who was curator for the exhibit “Lalique: A Century of Glass for the Modern World,” which toured U.S. museums from 1989 to 1992, believes the car company also provided a major, albeit more subliminal, inspiration for the 1925 Comete (Comet). He cites the fact that “Citroen drew attention to its exhibit, which was displayed throughout the Eiffel Tower by outlining the structure with a huge, blazing comet.” This daily sighting, the Manhattan-based and Parsons School of Design professor feels, resulted in that early, production-run mascot. However, contrary to widespread belief, Dawes stresses that neither Cinq Chevaux nor Comete was designed as a logo for the car company — nor were any of the 25 other mascots.
Rather, Jazz-Age celebrities, royalty and the wealthy bought mascots from various stores that sold Lalique. These “mascoteers” simply paid their money, $15 to $21, and made their choices. Zehms points out, “selection did follow a pattern according to the auto’s size.”
Larger pieces, such as 1925’s Faucon (Falcon), 1926’s kneeling Tireur d’Arc (Archer) or 1928’s seven-inch high Grande Libellude (Large Dragonfly) or Tête D’áigle (Eagle’s Head), were often purchased for larger cars, such as Rolls Royce or Hispano Suiza. Smaller, racier or more spritely pieces, such as 1928’s Petit Libellude (Small Dragonfly) or Lèvrier (Greyhound) more likely fronted a speedy two-seater roadster, such as those by Alfa Romeo or Delage.
Also, Lalique pieces deemed prettier, as well as his 1928 St. Christophe (Saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers), were far more popular than those viewed as ungainly, such as the 1929 Pintade (Guinea Hen) and two that fell victim to the economic downturn the 1930 Renard (Fox) and 1931 Hibou (Owl).
Gender also played a role in selection. Men tended to select 1929’s nubile, 8.4-inch-tall nude female Vitesse (Goddess of Speed), says Zehms, which is the personification of speed. Women were more apt to purchase a mascot that reflected elegance and whimsy, such as the 1928 Tete de Paon (Peacock Head).
However, probably the No. 1 one design, says Zehms, is the 1928 head of Victoire (Spirit of the Wind). This figure’s forceful angularity and backward-fanned, shaped and stylized hair uses geometrics, which were an important period motif. This use of linear designs, sculptural curves and hard-edged angles were the era’s visual expression of the energy, speed and syncopated rhythms that drove the machine age.
Along with condition and rarity — as many were chipped or shattered by flying pebbles or road debris and later, World War II’s devastation — Zehms says color also makes the prices skyrocket. Most were molded in clear or frosted glass. However, a piece occasionally shows up in opalescent glass or a color, sometimes yellow, orange, charcoal gray or topaz, but mainly amethyst, purple or turquoise. A colored piece in good condition is easily worth five times more than the clear glass version.
The presence of a metal mount, by which the piece was attached to the radiator cap or hood, also adds value. Made of chromium-plated brass, these mounts had a hollow base. Various Lalique dealers, such as London’s Breves Galleries, outfitted the base with a light bulb and any color filter the purchaser ordered. Dawes explains they used a magneto and wired the mount to the engine. The faster the car went, the brighter the mascot glowed.
However, this enchanting frippery had only a brief, seven-year life span, ending with 1931’s Hibou and Chrysis (Female Nude). The Depression and changing times spelled its doom.
World War II and the German occupation of France shut down Lalique’s Alsace factory. The family kept possession of the heavy, cast-iron molds. After Rene Lalique’s death in 1945 and World War II’s end, his son, Marc, reopened the glassworks, changed the output from glass to heavier, 24 percent lead crystal, changed the logo from the signature R. Lalique to Lalique France and reissued seven of the 27 mascots as paperweights and bookends.
Today, in honor of Rene Lalique’s 150th anniversary, the famed French crystal legend is once again using the original molds and reissuing the car mascots Victoire and Vitesse as part of the Hommage à René Lalique collection. This collection, launched in 2010, reintroduces and reinterprets many of Lalique’s original glass bowls, vases, nude figurals, panels and tabletop and boudoir accoutrements in crystal.”
Lalique’s automotive mascots have become important works of art that command as much as six figures at auction.
“They were commercial products made for the prestige of the owners of luxury automobiles and, as such, are fascinating,” Dawes said. “They represent Art Deco perfection: style, speed and elegance.” ?
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Rene Lalique: A man as varied as his creations
• 1860: René Lalique is born on April 6.
• 1882-1900: Lalique gains eminence as a jewelry designer, and in 1900 receives the prestigious “Croix de Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.”
• 1905: Lalique opens a shop on Paris’ Place Vendôme.
• 1908: Commissioned by François Coty, Lalique begins designing perfume bottles and packaging for the cosmetic company. Other companies follow suit: Molinard, Worth, Roger & Gallet, Houbigant and D’Orsay. Rene Lalique introduced the concept of the mass-produced “signature” perfume bottle, in contrast to the generic flacon used by perfumers in the 19th century.
• 1911: Lalique presents his first display at the shop in Place Vendôme devoted totally to glass; shortly thereafter, he focuses solely on glass.
• 1925: René Lalique’s mastery of glass and his designs create a sensation at the seminal Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, which gave its name to the international Art Deco style.
• 1925-39: Lalique decorates the Côte d’Azur Pullman Express train, as well as the ne plus ultra (first-class) Art Deco dining room of the ocean liner Normandie. He presents a glass table fountain at the World’s Fair in New York.
• 1940: The German Army occupies the Lalique factory in Alsace and shuts down the kilns.
• 1945: Allied forces liberate Lalique’s factory at Wingen-sur-Moder. On May 1, 1945, Rene Lalique dies in Paris at age 85. Later that year, his son, Marc, restarts Lalique. He turns the firm from a glass house to a crystal house and changes the signature from R. Lalique to Lalique France.
• 1977: Marc Lalique dies, and his daughter, Marie Claude Lalique, takes control.
• 1994: Marie Claude Lalique sells the company to the French company Pochet. Today, Cristal Lalique is owned jointly by the Swiss company Art & Fragrance and the Paris-based Holding Company Financière Saint-Germain (FSG).
• 2010: This year marks 150 years of Rene Lalique. To celebrate this momentous occasion, Lalique launches Hommage à René Lalique, a collection of Rene Lalique’s original works, re-examined, re-interpreted and re-introduced in crystal. The Macallan and Lalique partner to create “The Macallan 64 Years Old in Lalique Cire Perdue,” a one-of-a-kind decanter touring the world throughout 2010, raising funds to benefit charity: water. The final auction will be held Nov. 18 at Sotheby’s in New York City. Lalique also launches one-of-a-kind Serpent Necklace and limited-edition Serpent Fragrance in clear and amber crystal bottle. And, Lalique will be opening the Musée Lalique at Wingen-sur-Moder, Alsace, France.
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