Hopefully today’s story will get you smiling a bit, gentle reader, because we all certainly need some of that at the moment. In addition, for those of you with a creative bent, I’m hoping that you just might find yourself becoming a bit inspired as you read this, even while we’re all staying safe at home. For behold: I bring you, “Famille d’ Hippopotames” (“Family of Hippopotamuses”) (1992) by French sculptor François-Xavier Lalanne (1927–2008):
What’s more, this is not just a large, polished bronze sculptural group of a mother hippo and her calves – oh no. It’s also a bathroom suite.
Yes, you read that correctly.
And it’s for sale.
The enormously creative, artistic team known as “Les Lalanne” – François-Xavier and his wife Claude Lalanne (1924–2019) – sometimes worked together, and sometimes separately, but they had similar approaches in combining their love for the natural world with their sensitivity to good design, and beautiful, highly original objects. In some cases they created works that were purely decorative, but more often than not they were interested in exploring art that was capable of metamorphosis into objects serving a practical purpose, albeit in a rather Surrealist sort of way. While M. Lalanne was primarily interested in creating large representations of animal life, Mme. Lalanne mainly focused on plant life, often (though not always) on a more personal scale. Since M. Lalanne was responsible for the group of hippos shown above, today we’re going to focus on his work, but both Lalannes are definitely worth getting to know.
A quintessential example of M. Lalanne’s creative genius is the “Sauterelle” (“Grasshopper”)(1970), which is a bar made of polished brass and Sèvres porcelain in the form of a giant grasshopper, measuring about six feet in length. Only two of these were made, and one was given to the Queen as a gift by President Pompidou; it used to reside at Windsor Castle but I believe it may now be at Buck House. The other was auctioned by Sotheby’s New York nearly two years ago for $1.63 million – well over its pre-sale estimate.
This isn’t just a long table in the shape of a grasshopper however: there is practical bartending functionality built into the piece. As Sotheby’s explained in its listing, the grasshopper has “wings that convert to trays and a chic storage system to conceal liquor and barware.” I’m sure this is already giving the more creative cocktail drinkers among my readers some ideas.
You can see more examples of this incredibly creative work here on this excellent blog post from a few years ago at The Animalarium. I particularly draw your attention to the absolutely superb “Banc Crocodile” (2005) which is a table featuring a crocodile swimming through a bed of river plants, with the scene defined at the corners by scallop shell-adorned crocodile legs done in an 18th century Venetian Grotesque style. Conceptually, one could even imagine someone like the Emperor Hadrian (76 A.D.-138 A.D.) having one of these at his villa in Tivoli almost 2,000 years ago.
Perhaps the most famous of M. Lalanne’s metamorphic works was his “Rhinocrétaire” (1966) shown below. The giant bronze sculpture of a rhino, not quite life-sized but certainly quite large enough to dominate a room, could be opened up and used as a desk: hence the portmanteau of “rhino” and “secretary” in the piece’s title:
Once you can achieve a desk, of course, I suppose it’s really only a question of time until you turn your attention to bathroom furniture.
The original hippo bathtub was, perhaps not surprisingly, commissioned by Surrealist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). It was made out of resin, presumably meaning that it was fairly easy to clean, and tinted blue. That fact should immediately put you in mind of the blue-glazed ceramic tomb offerings of Ancient Egypt, such as the beloved “William” (c. 1961–1878 B.C.) hippo figurine at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later, a bronze version of the hippo bathtub was made; this was sold at Christie’s New York last fall for $4.3 million.
Perhaps in light of that sale result, there’s much excitement in the art press at the moment that in June, Sotheby’s Paris will be auctioning off “Famille d’ Hippopotames”, since it is a complete Lalanne three-piece bath suite, including a tub, toilet, and bidet. No price estimate has been provided by the auction house, although Art Market Monitor says that it’s around $2.7 million, a figure which, personally, I find rather on the low end. Given that this was a special commission, and (so far as I’m aware) there’s no other set like it in the world, AND given the sales results that Les Lalanne have been achieving over the last few years, I anticipate that the bidding for this group is going to be extremely intense.
For those of us who, understandably, aren’t going to be spending millions on fine art bathroom fixtures, nevertheless the example of Les Lalanne can serve as an inspiration. What sorts of things could you be making at home that are both practical and metamorphic, reflecting your interest in nature, travel, art, music, or what have you? Could you build a sewing box in the shape of a giant spool of thread, for example? Could you knit a giant mitten in which to store all of the kids’ gloves and mittens?
The love of whimsy and the sense of joy which Les Lalanne brought to their work can help all of us to keep being creative and engaged with the world around us, even as we wait to return to normal.