If you are a functional potter, you have pots in your kitchen. You probably collect the works of potters you admire, but you also likely have made things for yourself or tested works in your own home. Or perhaps you keep the slightly imperfect mugs and jars that emerge from your kiln and sell the rest. Don’t we all serve our cats their dinners on seconds? And some of us are tempted to make a few architectural things, a table or countertop, a bathroom sink, even a fireplace.
I suspect the same is true for craftspeople working in other mediums. The woodworker builds her own cabinets or doors, the weaver makes his own bed coverings, the blacksmith makes a garden gate. But meeting a fine artist, especially a sculptor or painter doing the same is unexpected.
So I was surprised to discover (while reading Calder at Home: The Joyous Environment of Alexander Calder by Pedro E. Guerrero) that the inventor of the mobile made many utensils for his own kitchen which his wife Louisa, who did the cooking, used. He also made candle sconces from corrugated sheet metal and the bottoms of beer cans, lamps from gelatin molds, and various other household items. If he saw a need, he snipped and bent and fabricated whatever metal he had at hand to create the solution. He was also fond of making toys from empty coffee cans, cigar boxes and wire for the young people in his life.
The Calders had an old farmhouse in Roxbury, Connecticut, which they painted black, and an old stone and brick house in France, followed by a house built to their specifications in France. In each home, Calder’s mobiles hung from the ceilings, sometimes crashing into each other, and his paintings hung on the walls. Louisa hooked numerous brightly colored rugs using her husband’s designs, which he enlarged and transferred to the rug backings for her. She spread her rugs out on their floors, close together, and gave what they couldn’t use away to friends and family.
From 1969 to 1972, Calder designed porcelain plates for Sévres, “using the same technique as his gouaches.” However, Guerrero tells us that there is no evidence that the Calders used these factory made wares on their own table.
What’s interesting about Calder at Home is it gives us a glimpse into an integrated life. Calder’s art filled his homes and the outbuildings and land that surrounded them. But as focussed as he was on creating his soaring stabiles and mobiles and gouaches, he also devoted himself to making things for the family’s domestic life. I might not want to eat from his Sévres plates either, but who wouldn’t want to try one of his forks? They invite picking up and holding in your hand. They are the antithesis of precious, thus also inviting use. In his home life, it seems, the great artist was also an excellent designer.