French glassware and jewelry designer René Lalique (1860–1945) is recognized as one of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries' finest creators of Art Deco and Art Nouveau decorative items. Lalique's glassware was both stylistically and technologically innovative, leading to great success for the designer both in personal and architectural glass products. Today, Lalique is particularly remembered for his decorative glass, such as vases and bowls; the Lalique Company continues to produce art glass and jewelry to this day.
Born April 6, 1860, in Ay, a small village in the Marne region of France, Lalique came from humble beginnings to become one of the world's most renowned glassmakers. When Lalique was still a toddler, his family relocated to his businessman father's hometown in suburban Paris. However, they often returned to Ay on summer holidays, allowing Lalique to retain a close connection to his birthplace. From an early age, Lalique demonstrated a marked interest and ability in art. In 1872, Lalique enrolled in the Turgot collège, where he studied drawing under Jean-Marie Lequien. Lalique proved his early aptitude for art by winning a first prize in drawing while at the collège. He then continued his art studies at the Paris School for the Decorative Arts while also studying jewelry making.
In 1876, Lalique's father died and Lalique took regular employment as a jewelry-making apprentice under Louis Aucoc, one of Paris's premier jewelers, while attending evening courses at the Paris School for the Decorative Arts. This apprenticeship provided Lalique with an unparalleled opportunity to learn essential crafting skills hands-on, as well as offering an introduction to the kinds of raw materials used in jewelry design. After two years with Aucoc, Lalique moved to London, where he studied at Sydenham College, initially built as an art school in the famed Crystal Palace, a huge iron-and-glass building designed to house the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851. Although Lalique's reasons for going to England at this time are not obvious, Nicholas M. Dawes speculates in his book Lalique Glass that Lalique may have been "drawn to England by the blossoming arts and crafts movement, whose ideals and concepts were refreshingly distinct from those of fashionable Paris society and clearly more sympathetic to his own." Indeed, during the period of Lalique's studies in England, the first stirrings of his individual, naturalistic style became apparent.
First Professional Successes
Returning to Paris in 1880, Lalique worked both as a jewelry designer for a relative, M. Vuilleret, and, over the next few years, as an independent contract artist. He also studied sculpture and modeling under Lequien at the Ecole Bernard Palissy, completing his formal art training. Quickly, Lalique built up his contract clientele, designing jewelry for such major houses as Cartier and Boucheron. By 1885, Lalique was ready to strike out on his own, opening a small atelier which commenced work the following year. Here, he could produce his own unique style of jewelry stemming from the Art Nouveau style, still in its formative stages. Lalique particularly became known for his use of semiprecious gems, enamels, ivory, and other hard stones.
Lalique's success grew quickly and by 1887, he needed more space. He rented another atelier and ran both workshops until 1890, when he combined operations in one, larger location, with room for thirty workers. Working with two father-and-son sculptors, Lalique designed the decorations for the atelier's walls and ceilings; he would later marry Augustine Alice Ledru, the daughter and sister of these two sculptors. During his tenure in this workshop, Lalique truly came into his own as a designer. He made pieces for such luminaries as actress Sarah Bernhardt; Tony L. Mortimer noted in Lalique that Bernhardt's patronage "proved a valuable commercial asset which immediately gained him an international reputation." Lalique also began his first forays into glass work, either incorporating bits of glass into his jewelry designs or making such small pieces of glassware as perfume vials. On a personal note, in 1892 Lalique's first child, daughter Suzanne, was born.
The 1890s continued to hold triumphs for Lalique. By 1894, Lalique's pieces were sold in Siegfried Bing's La Maison de l'Art Nouveau, the shop which would lend its name to the Art Nouveau movement. In 1897, he exhibited some ivory-and-horn combs at Paris' Salon and was dubbed the "inventor of modern jewelry" by Emile Gallé. That same year, Lalique participated in the International Exposition at Brussels, Belgium, where he was awarded the Grand Prize. To cap off the year, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
In 1898, Lalique established a workshop devoted to glassware. Although Lalique's period of experimentation with items made completely of glass was short-lived, he continued to use the material in conjunction with other metals. Lalique began working with bronze, perhaps encouraged by his wife's family. By the turn of the century, Lalique had begun creating large panel and bas-relief glass pieces, often framed in bronze. Intrigued by recently developed processes allowing glass to be cast into any form using a hollow mold, Dawes noted that "Lalique recognized the commercial potential in the malleable properties of [this kind of] glass and developed his own glass body, termed demi-cristal, with the same properties."
In 1900, Lalique exhibited with great success at the World's Fair at Paris. After this, Lalique turned more and more to the creation of glassware, finding many of his nature-inspired designs to be copied by rival jewelry makers. Lalique also celebrated the birth of his second child, son Marc, in September 1900 and was promoted to Officer of the Legion of Honor. In 1902, the Lalique family moved to a large house which Lalique had specially built, designing the striking front doors himself with a pine branch and pinecone motif.
Shifted to Glassware
Continuing to exhibit in major art shows both in France and throughout Europe, Lalique opened a store in 1905 on Paris' famed Place Vendôme offering both jewelry and glass. The boutique's location near perfumer François Coty's shop led to a providential partnership around 1908, with Lalique initially designing labels and later glass bottles for Coty's perfumes. This was the first time perfumes were packaged in distinctive, rather than traditionally classical, bottles; Lalique's designs for Coty were so evocative of the fragrance that he went on to design bottles for many major perfumers of the era. Lalique did not have the production capabilities necessary for the large amount of bottles Coty required for his mass market perfumes, so the earliest bottles were designed by Lalique but produced by Legras and Company; in 1909, Lalique opened his own glassworks just outside of Paris, allowing him to use his preferred demicristal type of glass, better showing Lalique's distinctive style. However, the year also held sorrow for Lalique: his wife, Augustine Alice Lalique-Ledru, died.
In 1911, Lalique turned definitively away from jewelry and to glassware following his exposition at the first show of the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts devoted exclusively to works in glass. The following year, he designed architectural features including doors, windows, and interior fittings for an upscale French residence and for the Coty Building on New York City's Fifth Avenue. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Lalique's production output changed from purely decorative items to include practical ones: laboratory glass for hospitals and pharmacies. After the war, however, Lalique found such a high demand for his products that in 1921 he built a large glassworks, Verrerie d'Alsace René Lalique et Cie, at Wingen sur Moder, in the east of France. (This factory remains in use by the Lalique Company today.)
In 1925, Lalique exhibited a number of decorative glass pieces in the emerging Art Deco style at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. This style, less naturalistic than the Art Nouveau style, became highly popular after the 1925 Exposition and Lalique successfully blended his existing style into the new Art Deco technique. This decade saw Lalique's glassware become available throughout France and indeed the world, with stores in the United States, England and Argentina among other countries offering Lalique pieces to the public. Lalique became particularly well-known for his mass produced frosted glass vases, first produced in 1926. His glassworks primarily turned out these small, relatively inexpensive pieces, although occasionally Lalique designed large pieces, including interior fittings and decorations for luxury French ocean liners; church windows throughout France; and a dining car of the world-famous Venice Simplon Orient Express, a luxury train running across Europe.
Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lalique also made his mark as a designer of the car mascot. The forerunner of modern hood ornaments, the car mascot was a small decorative item, often mounted on a car's radiator cap—at that time conveniently fitted with a screw-top metal attachment—or bolted over the engine casing. Lalique first designed a mascot for French car manufacturer Citroën in 1925; over the next several years, he created twenty-seven different mascots for car companies including Bentley and Rolls-Royce. The mascots could also serve as paperweights and had typically Lalique nature-related designs, often stylized animals such as grasshoppers, peacocks, eagles, or frogs. After car companies began designing their own logos to serve as mascots, Lalique marketed the pieces' other function, selling them as paperweights or bookends.
Lalique continued this course into the 1930s, primarily making small glass pieces but occasionally venturing into large, commissioned works, most notably with the design of fountains installed on Paris's Champs-Elysées, American department stores fixtures, and a Tokyo palace. Still producing a small amount of jewelry, in 1931, Lalique designed the popular cabochon ring. In 1935, Lalique opened a shop on the Rue Royale, in Paris, where the company still operates their offices and flagship store.
World War II and Lalique's Legacy
Although Lalique's products remained immensely popular, the company suspended operations in 1939 when its factory in Wingen sur Moder was occupied by an invading German force. The area remained under German control and the glassworks remained closed until the end of the war in 1945. Unfortunately, René Lalique did not live to see his factory re-open after the war; he died on May 9, 1945, at the age of 85, after a productive and successful life in creative jewelry and glass design. However, the death of Lalique did not mean the end of his company. In late 1945, Lalique's son Marc re-opened the Wingen sur Moder factory, designing new pieces and using a new, brighter form of glass. Marc Lalique's daughter, Marie-Claude Lalique, came to work with her father in 1956 and became the head of the glassworks in 1977 upon her father's death. Today, the Lalique Company continues to produce highly respected decorative glass and jewelry, with outlets throughout the world; Lalique's original, turn-of-the-century pieces can be found in such internationally-known museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, New York, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, France, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England.
Bayer, Patricia and Mark Waller, The Art of René Lalique, Quintet, 1988.
Dawes, Nicholas M., Lalique Glass, Crown Publishers, 1986.
McDonald, Jesse, Lalique, Brompton Books, 1995.
Mortimer, Tony L., Lalique, Chartwell Books, 1989.
"René Lalique, 1860–1945," http://www.cristallalique.fr/v1/biographie_en.htm (December 29, 2005).