Pragmatic Elegance

Calder's Household Objects

On a social call to their good friends and neighbors Léonie and Geddes Parsons in Roxbury, Connecticut, seminal 20th-century sculptor Alexander Calder and his wife Louisa once found themselves sitting around the table of the Parsons’ uncomfortably dark kitchen. The light above their heads was exceptionally faint. “You need a goddamn lamp. I’ll make you one!” Calder exclaimed, and soon afterwards he made good on that promise. The artist returned to his friends’ house, bestowing them with the handmade light fixture pictured here and installed it himself in their kitchen, in place of the offending dim bulb. The gesture, both pragmatic and moving, was not lost on the Parsons family, who kept the lamp in use in their homes for decades to come.

Making things by hand was not only a personal aesthetic, but also a way of life for Alexander Calder. From the time he was a child, he was engaged in finding his own solution to a given problem by creating an object that could solve it. This natural instinct was nurtured by his parents—both artists themselves—who, as he recounted later “were all for my efforts to build things myself—they approved of the homemade.” In this way, he frequently amused himself and his sister Peggy with toys of his own devise, made from common items found around the house, or picked up from the street. The proclivity thus ingrained, he carried it with him into adulthood. As a young art student living in a one-room apartment in New York in 1926, Calder found himself with no clock. In that tiny home, he was unable to tell the time. Undaunted, he proceeded to make a sundial, in the shape of a rooster, from a single piece of wire which he then placed on his south-facing windowsill, an economical and elegant solution if ever there was one.

It was this down-to-earth approach that helped lead to Calder’s many extraordinary artistic achievements. After leaving New York in 1926 for an extended stay in Paris, Calder dreamed up his legendary Cirque Calder, the miniature circus he conceived based on his experiences studying the live Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in New York. The assemblage, which eventually grew to over 125 individual pieces, was entirely made by Calder from wire, cloth, string, and a multitude of found and everyday articles. Like the many household objects that Calder would come to make over the years, the circus figures seem to be imbued with a certain alchemy. In Calder’s hands, a wine cork transformed into a ringmaster, a swath of mesh into an acrobat’s safety net, and scraps of white paper into fluttering white doves. His ingenuity continued to serve him; it was in early 1931, while attempting to solve the problem of how to activate sculpture, that Calder invented the mobile, an entirely original art form that eventually brought him great renown.

In 1933, Calder and his young wife Louisa purchased a dilapidated farmhouse in rural Roxbury, Connecticut where they settled to raise a family. Over the years Calder made countless objects for himself, his wife, and daughters that were no less remarkable for being items that were intended to serve a function. From a large wooden crate that had contained their personal effects shipped back to them from France, Calder built kitchen cabinets. A dinner bell for Louisa made from robin’s egg blue glass and adorned with graceful wire armatures from which dangle the “clappers” (other, multi-colored glass pieces) is mobile-like in its sophistication and delicacy. Photographs taken in later years show an extraordinary array of grills, trays, ladles, and other utensils hanging from racks in the Roxbury kitchen, nearly all of them Calder-made.

While many of these items were made for use in his own household, Calder’s generosity towards his friends and acquaintances was legendary, and many were touched to find themselves recipients of these gifts both magical and handy. In one famous story, Calder’s good friend (and soon-to-be son-in-law) Jean Davidson had purchased a mill house in the French countryside, and had undertaken a grand renovation of its fireplace. Upon completion of the project, Davidson invited over three-dozen friends to a dinner party. However, in his excitement Davidson overlooked an important component: he had nothing to cook with over the fire. It was Calder who came to the rescue, remembering afterwards that he “hunted around…and found an old garden chair made completely of iron. I wove some wire across where the back had been, and we cocked it up on the fire and it served very well as a grill. Steak à la chaise came to be the spécialité maison.”

And what of the light fixture, made for good friends all those years ago? In his hands, Calder effortlessly formed a piece of sheet metal into the folded shade of the lamp. There is an impression of motion to the form, not unlike that found in his better-known mobiles, and its biomorphic shape suggests the wings of a bird, or perhaps the ocean’s undulating waves. Constructed from stripped down industrial sheet metal, the light fixture would not be out of place hanging in a downtown loft or—as it once did—a rustic farmhouse. A utilitarian object that is no less practical for being beautiful, in many ways it is the quintessential Calder gift.

If you can imagine a thing, conjuring it up in space–then you can make it… The universe is real but you can’t see it. You have to imagine it. Once you imagine it, you can be realistic about reproducing it.

—Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder 1898–1976

Born in 1898 to Nanette Lederer Calder and Alexander Stirling Calder, a painter and a sculptor respectively, Alexander Calder was encouraged to be creative and make things by hand. As a child he made gifts for his family and jewelry for his sister’s dolls. In 1915, Calder attended Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey graduating in 1919 with a degree in mechanical engineering because his parents didn’t want him to struggle as an artist. After completing school, Calder work a myriad of jobs including draftsman for Edison Company, a staff member at Lumber magazine, coloring maps for a hydraulics engineer and timekeeper for a logging camp.

In the spring of 1922 Calder attended night classes in drawing and the following year he decides to pursue a career as a painter. By 1925 Calder had his first art exhibition and in 1926 he made his first sculptures out of wood and wire. Calder relocated to Paris, socializing with the Parisian avant-garde, and started making mechanical toys and abstract sculptures. His kinetic works, a departure from traditional sculpture, became known as ‘mobiles’, a term coined by Marcel Duchamp.

Calder’s artistic endeavors ranged from mobiles to stabiles (static sculptures) both small and large, to jewelry and paintings. Today his works can be found in numerous museum collections around the world including The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.

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