House of Glass : Mademoiselle Lalique Carries on the Family Tradition of Fine Crystal

An Indian scholar who came to dinner with my parents said, when the roast beef was finally served, "I am absolutely ravished (halfway between ravenous and famished)." I should not laugh at this, as I have made equally ludicrous mistakes in foreign languages--mainly in French.

My worst blooper was in Avignon some years ago. I went into a small antique shop in which every shelf was lined with examples of the misty-white and misty-blue crystal made by the French Lalique factory in the '20s and '30s. I complimented the woman who owned the shop on its impressive display.

"Mais, Monsieur, Lalique est mon dada!" she exclaimed.

I was astounded. "Monsieur Lalique est votre pere, Madame?"

She laughed her head off. I thought she was saying that Lalique was her father; but the French word dada means hobby . Collecting Lalique was her spare-time occupation, and selling it was her career. (Incidentally, I later learned a much more graceful way of saying hobby in French: violon d'Ingres. Apparently, the French artist Ingres, like Sherlock Holmes, played the violin for relaxation; so Ingres' violin has come to mean hobby .)

In my still lamentable French, I told that story to Mlle. Marie-Claude Lalique--granddaughter of the factory's founder, now the company's president and chief designer--when she visited Beverly Hills in October to see how sales of Lalique crystal were doing at Geary's on Beverly Drive. This has been an important year for Lalique. For a start, Marie-Claude Lalique, a Paris-elegant woman, celebrated her 50th birthday in 1985. It may sound rather ungallant of me to reveal that, but in fact Mlle. Lalique makes no secret of her age. In fact, she blazons it across a page in her magnificently produced book "Lalique par Lalique" which, I am glad to say, has text in English translation as well as in French, and of which Geary's has some copies for sale. (Reassuringly, the English translation is almost as bad as my French and even contains some quite inspired oddities, such as "The 1900 exhibit raised up an unfurl of praises.")

The year 1985 has also marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of Marie-Claude's grandfather, Rene Lalique, and the 40th anniversary of his death. He began his career as a designer of Art Nouveau jewelry. Several pieces of it are illustrated in color in "Lalique par Lalique," and they are superlatively fine. It is no exaggeration to mention him (as Mlle. Lalique proudly does) in the same breath as the Renaissance goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini. We shall have a chance to see Rene Lalique jewelry in 1986, when the Los Angeles County Museum holds an exhibition of it from June 29 through Aug. 18.

Rene Lalique became more and more interested in glass, which, in its malleability and permutations of clarity and mistiness, was an ideal medium for expressing Art Nouveau style. His models for perfume flasks caught the notice of the perfume manufacturer Francois Coty, who asked Lalique to design bottles for Coty perfumes. About 1909, Lalique opened a glassworks at Combs-la-Ville, where he made perfume bottles, vases, lamps and statuettes. In 1921, he bought a larger glassworks at Wingen-sur-Moder in Alsace. He was invited to design fountains and gates for the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs--the exhibition that gave the name to Art Deco--and the glassware that he showed there was a sensational success. Today, those pieces are avidly collected and command high prices at auction.

Marie-Claude Lalique's grandfather died when she was 10. I asked: "Quelle espece de gentilhomme etait-il?" Apparently, that was a screamingly funny way to ask what sort of guy he was, but Mlle. Lalique politely smothered her giggles and replied: "He was a man with a lot of personality and was very observant of other people." When she went to see him, she made drawings, which he pinned on his bedroom wall. "He was happy, and I was flattered," she said.

Her father took her to the factory in Alsace when she was a child. One old worker made little animals of glass for her. Each time she visited the glassworks, she brought one away, until she had a glass menagerie. "I think that Father (Marc Lalique) already had the idea of making me grow to love crystal," she said. "That is why he took me to the factory so often." When Marc Lalique died in 1977, Marie-Claude took control of the company. Lalique's management of the company is strongly traditional. At Geary's, one can buy many of the models designed by her grandfather, including a beautiful Art Deco table of glass. But her own designs, of bold leaf motifs, have a "1980s feeling."

Lalique asked me whether I knew that one of the great showpieces of Lalique was made for Los Angeles, for the 1928 Oviatt Building on Olive Street, which now houses the Rex restaurant but was formerly a men's clothing store. A glass ceiling was designed for the interior by Rene Lalique, though the glass was made in another factory because it was the flat, thick kind of glass that is not produced in handmade-crystal factories. Some of the glass architectural elements in the original installation have been retained in the Rex, but the main ceiling was taken down 20 years ago and sold at auction to a woman who intended to use it in another restaurant. The 400 square feet of Art Deco glass, which the woman has in storage, has been offered to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Marie-Claude Lalique was pleased with her visit to Geary's, where sales of both her glass and her book were brisk. (About 25% of Lalique crystal is sold in the United States, but many of the firm's wares are also sold to American tourists in France and elsewhere.) The glass includes fine tableware, including a wineglass of which the stem is a little smiling angel based on a carving on Reims Cathedral. When Lalique picks up a piece to let the light play on it, her eyes kindle like the crystal. When she was a child, her father told her: "If some day you happen to like our profession, you will soon find out that you cannot give it up." She liked it.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World