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The Lalique Mystique

French designer-entrepreneur René Lalique was a wizard who could make glass do just about anything—and die-hard devotees of his works will do just about anything to get them.

René Lalique, Illuminated Surtout de table, Oiseau de Feu (Firebird), R. Lalique et Cie., circa 1922, mold-pressed, acid-etched intaglio design, 42.2 cm.

René Lalique, Illuminated Surtout de table, Oiseau de Feu (Firebird), R. Lalique et Cie., circa 1922, mold-pressed, acid-etched intaglio design, 42.2 cm.

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Suzanne is clearly delighted with herself—and why shouldn’t she be? She’s young and gorgeous and carefree, and the world is hers for the taking. She trails drapery from her outstretched arms as if it were a pair of butterfly wings, and though she is otherwise nude, she embodies the Art Deco fashion of her time. She almost looks as if she could float away, but picking her up will dispel that impression instantly. The nine-inch figure is made of glass, mold-pressed circa 1925 in the French factories of jeweler-turned-glass-master René Lalique. His luxurious glass confections legitimized his empire as a rival to Fabergé and Tiffany—both Louis Comfort and the jewelry house.

Suzanne shares her name with Lalique’s own daughter, who was born in 1892 and grew up to assist the family business, and there is some debate about whether the statuette has any connection to her. Some say yes, but Nicholas Dawes, who conducted the earliest auction of Lalique in America at Phillips New York in 1980, authored the 1986 book Lalique Glass, and now works for Heritage Auctions in Dallas, disagrees. He suspects the name refers to the tale of Susanna and the Elders, which he says is more in keeping with Lalique’s interest in mythological and historic beauties. Furthermore, he points out that modeling your grown, married daughter sans garments for a mass-produced item is “very déclassé. You just don’t do that.” But everyone agrees that Suzanne is among the finest objets d’art that René Lalique ever made. Speaking of it and a similar Lalique statuette of a nude female, Thais, which Dawes showcased on the cover of his book, he says, “You look at them and realize how good René Lalique was. Nobody could sculpt like that. He was so far ahead.”

Dawes looks forward to auctioning as one lot an opalescent Suzanne and Thais, which he deems “the best I’ve ever seen,” at Heritage’s November 21 “Tiffany, Lalique, & Art Glass” sale in Dallas. The pair could collectively fetch $30,000 to $50,000. In addition, Christie’s will have an online-only sale this month, titled “Lalique,” which will last from October 16–30. But those who wish to marinate themselves in all things Lalique without raising a paddle or clicking a mouse should head to Corning, N.Y., to indulge in the Corning Museum of Glass’ exhibition “René Lalique: Enchanted by Glass,” which opened in May and continues through January 4, 2015. In addition, the 53rd annual Seminar on Glass will take place at the Corning from October 17–18 and will feature lectures related to the Lalique exhibition. Speakers include Dawes and Kelley Elliott, assistant curator of the museum’s modern and contemporary glass department.

“René Lalique: Enchanted by Glass” is the institution’s first major Lalique show since accepting a large donation from American collectors Elaine and Stanford Steppa, whose pursuit of the material dates to the late 1970s. It is the Steppas’ amber-colored Suzanne that appears in the Corning show, as does their Oiseau de Feu (Firebird) illuminated table decoration; their Vitesse (Speed) mascot—also known as a hood ornament—which still has its radiator cap attached; their Le Jour et La Nuit (Day and Night) clock; their Fougères (Ferns) and Bouchon Mures (Berry Stopper) perfume bottles; and their greatest Lalique prize, a 1930 cire perdue (lost-wax) vase, dubbed Martins-Pecheurs sur fond de roseaux (Kingfishers on a background of reeds), as well as hundreds of other pieces. With the Steppas’ contribution, the museum possesses more than 600 objects by Lalique, and the gift has permitted Corning curators to link pieces gathered by the Steppas to items in its collection of Lalique molds, showing the finished product and its precursor side by side.

Lalique’s superlative achievements in glass would not have happened if he had not first worked as a jeweler and transformed that profession with his vision, technical innovation, and creativity. Instead of emphasizing a large, sparkly stone and relegating everything else to handmaiden status, Lalique conceived his jewels as holistic works, and he championed the use of semi-precious materials such as horn. “His jewelry changed the way the world saw jewelry,” says Frank Maraschiello, head of 20th-century decorative arts at Bonhams. “It became about design, and that carried into the glass. It was elegant, beautiful, well-made, and there was a wide range of it as the company continued.”

The Lalique show allows Elliott to celebrate a reunion that the Corning effected almost two decades ago and relate it to Lalique’s broader career arc. Pendant with Bishop Birds, a charming bauble fashioned from glass, enamel, and a baroque pearl, entered the Corning in 1990 as a donation from another pair of important Lalique collectors, Mr. and Mrs. Glenn S. Utt Jr. It came to the museum attributed to René Lalique, and contained glass (pâte de verre, which translates as “glass paste,” a favorite Lalique material) but was unsigned. “There were a lot of questions about how it was designed,” says Elliott. Many of those questions were settled four years later when the pendant’s original design drawing went to auction. Corning placed the winning bid and claimed the proof that confirmed the authorship. The jewel’s circa 1900–05 date is well before the November 1912 all-glass show at Lalique’s Paris boutique that trumpeted the designer’s new direction. “It’s pretty evident when you look at his pieces that he values glass as a material very early on. It’s malleable, and he could create what he wanted,” Elliott says. “It’s a beautiful little pendant. We’re lucky to have it.”

Why Lalique took his leave from bespoke jewelry-making when he was seemingly at his peak—his clientele included the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt and other luminaries of the French elite—is a fair question. Dawes posits: “He had nothing left to prove in the realm of jewelry. He was looking for new challenges and ultimately settled on glass. Early examples of working in glass are really transitional objects between the two careers.” Perhaps the keenest example of this is Lalique’s collaboration with the perfume company Coty, which had a storefront up the road from his on the Place Vendôme. Initially, Coty wanted Lalique to design a bottle label; Lalique, ever the holistic thinker, countered with a request to conceive the entire package. The first Coty perfume bottle by Lalique appeared on the market in 1909, and nothing was ever the same again—not for Lalique, nor Coty, nor for parfumiers the world over, nor for the history and science of package design. If you’ve ever enjoyed the look and feel of a perfume bottle that is itself a man-made jewel, you have Lalique to thank. “It really did propel French luxury perfume around the world,” says Elliott. “It was exponential how much money [Lalique] made because of this.”

The perfume bottles in the Corning show feature two that Lalique created for sale in his own boutiques. Beautiful as his mass-market perfume bottle commissions were (after Coty’s jaw-dropping success, dozens of its competitors clamored to have Lalique work his magic on their offerings), his clients were happy to pay the modern equivalent of $200–300 for a Lalique-brand bottle into which they would decant another scent in the confines of their boudoirs. Given that the Lalique perfume bottles aren’t limited-edition pieces, an astonishing amount of effort was lavished upon them. The red and orange geyser of fruit that enlivens the stopper of Bouchon Mures was made from pressed glass that was later acid-etched, while the bottle itself relied on a technique by which glass was blown into a mold. It features enamelwork, as well. The Fougères is equally elaborate. The green parts of the bottle were first acid-etched, and then the green patina applied; the green would adhere to the acid-etched areas and nothing else. The medallions on either side of the bottle’s surface were pressed into the piece on gold foil. “It is a lot of work,” says Elliott. “I think one of the things that makes Lalique incredible and beautiful is the individual attention to each bottle and vase, the thought that went into it.”

The French genius and his talented firm applied that thought to a startlingly wide array of objects, from clocks to ashtrays to fountains to inkwells to table lamps to bookends to knife rests. Elaine Steppa says that’s part of the reason why her husband is so captivated by Lalique. “Whatever it was, if René Lalique did it, he collected it,” she says. “Lalique put glass on cigar boxes. He put glass knobs on top of canes. He put them on swizzle sticks. There were so many unusual things that he made. Others probably thought it was silly to make them out of glass, because they could break, but they endured. That’s why we have so many of them.”

It was this proclivity to make what the public wanted, in whatever numbers that the market would bear, that distinguishes René Lalique, who died in 1945, a day after Europe celebrated the end of World War II. If you seek immortality, being a peerless artist, or a hard worker, or a technical wizard isn’t enough. Lalique was all of those things (he had 16 patents to his name, including one for a glass bathtub), and he was a competent businessman (one of his factories employed 400 people) and a gifted marketer-promoter. No tortured auteur he; the fact that he took Coty’s commercial design project and ran with it is ample evidence of that. Dawes’ stock line when asked about the likely size of a given object’s production run is, “As many as they could sell.”

“It’s very easy to romanticize Lalique, but it’s important to understand that he was a modernist,” Dawes says. “He believed in the power of the machine, and industry, and he was able to exploit that and make the best works of glass in industrial glassmaking. He’s not some artisan working away. He ran a factory, and he knew how to do it. That’s important.”
David Weinstein, president of DJL Lalique in Glen Cove, N.Y., who has dealt Lalique for decades and sold his personal perfume bottle collection to Silvio Denz, the current owner of the Lalique company, in 2002, says he sees no clear pattern of collectors favoring one type of object over another. “One day we could be selling a car mascot. Another day, we could be selling perfume bottles. The next, it could be vases,” he says. “It’s very diversified.” Among the rarest Lalique pieces are those made via the cire perdue, or lost-wax, method, but only about 125 are known. Precisely how many were completed and later lost, or abandoned after they broke during the manufacturing process, or were never attempted, is difficult to confirm. This much is certain, however: Only Lalique, who understood the cire perdue technique well from using it to make metal portions of his jewelry, would even consider applying it to glassmaking. Dawes states that Lalique didn’t pioneer it so much as revive it. “Nobody else really did it before he did in the modern world. It was used in the ancient world, and like a lot of ancient technology, it was lost,” he says. “Cire perdue is a very difficult thing to do artistically as well as technically. There are several pieces that clearly didn’t make it. It was his way of saying, ‘I can do this too. I can do the ultimate artisanal work in glass.’”

While René Lalique objects are reasonably plentiful in the United States, cire perdue is not; seemingly little of it left Europe. Elliott addresses its rarity by pointing to the Corning’s own oversize Lalique collection. “There are over 600 pieces of glass, and we only have three,” she says. The Steppas are responsible for increasing the Corning’s cire perdue census by 33.3 percent in giving it the aforementioned vase. Steppa recalls that a fellow glass collector who had mocked her husband for seeking Lalique told him in the early 1990s that the vase was available and asked if he wanted it. Stanford housed the piece in its own locked-top vitrine and would nervously hover nearby when Elaine dusted it. “It’s a very 3-D piece,” she says, noting that both she and her husband are satisfied that the collection has found a worthy steward: “Stanford enjoyed every minute of it, and he’s very content with it being where it is.”

Lalique’s one-offs weren’t limited to cire perdue. English-born dealer Mark Waller of Gallery Moderne in Piermont, N.Y., has handled Lalique since 1975 but restricted his scope to rarities after the French company—which still thrives—started issuing reproductions of its founder’s designs around 1998. Among Waller’s favorites in his stock is a cicada vase that dates to around 1908. (Its motif references a fable that the French know as “The Cicada and the Ant”; Americans know a version that stars a laggardly grasshopper.) “The concept is quite simple, but the amount of work put in to get it absolutely the way Lalique wanted it was extraordinary,” Waller says. With the help of an expert from the Corning Museum, he determined that the piece was first hand-blown, then wheel-carved, as if the glass were a large gemstone, before the black coloration was applied to the cicadas and the piece was fired. The carving alone, which removed about a quarter-inch of material from the surface of the glass, would have taken three months. It could have failed in a host of ways—the carver could have slipped, and the nearly-complete vase had to risk the firing furnace before it was done—yet it survived these challenges. “That’s why the piece is so extraordinary,” Waller says. “I don’t know what it was made for.”

Whether it’s the most common factory-made item or something scarce and unique that demanded hundreds of man-hours to complete, René Lalique’s glass designs still have the power to seduce the eye. The Corning curators acknowledged that fact when they subtitled their exhibition “Enchanted by Glass.” “I’m still in awe,” Weinstein says. “I’m like a kid in a candy shop, and I’m looking at my own stuff.”

Author: Sheila Gibson Stoodley | Publish Date: September 2014

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