Beyond Functionality: Forms & Figures

Anthropomorphism and Zoomorphic design have been prevalent themes in the 20th century, deeply rooted in the intersection of culture, history, and design philosophy. These concepts, drawing inspiration from both human characteristics and animal forms, have shaped various aspects of design, from architecture to industrial and commercial product design.
Some of the earliest examples of anthropomorphism and zoomorphic design can be traced back to ancient civilizations. The Egyptians, for instance, depicted their gods with human bodies and animal heads, blending human attributes with animal symbolism. This fusion of characteristics reflected their beliefs, where animals were revered for their perceived qualities such as strength, wisdom, or agility.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and these themes experienced a resurgence, particularly in the wake of industrialisation and technological advancements. As society grappled with the rapid changes brought about by modernity, there was a longing for a connection to nature and a desire to imbue the sterile, mechanised world with warmth and personality; a playful contrast to modernism while still often loaded with meaning, references, and symbolism.
Here are a couple of my favourite designers from the second half of the 20th century whose work incorporates these themes.

Claude Lalanne at the Whitechapel Art Gallery with a Les Lalanne artwork, London, 1976 / Alamy

Nicola L.’s work engaged with radical ideas in feminist politics, equality, and collectivity. She was particularly known for her anthropomorphic designs that fused the female form and domestic objects. She termed much of her sculpture “functional art,” making furniture that is at once silly, critical, and useful. La Femme Commode, originally designed in 1969, is a lacquered wood cabinet in the shape of a woman in which body parts become drawers.
Many of Gaetano Pesce’s designs incorporated anthropomorphic elements. One of the most well-known examples would be his La Mamma chair and ottoman designed in 1969, part of the UP series produced by B&B Italia. Of feminine form inspired by silhouettes of ancient fertility goddesses and accompanied by an affixed ottoman resembling a ball and chain, this piece is both practical and radical.

French sculptors Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, known collectively as Les Lalanne, challenged the boundaries between art and design. Their zoomorphic furniture designs are highly decorative yet also functional. A bronze Hippopotame II bar from 1978 recently sold at Christie’s for over 7,000,000 USD. As the name suggests, it is indeed a life-sized hippopotamus shaped bar. Les Lalanne are also well known for their whimsical sheep shaped sculptures that function as stools. These are just two examples of many marvellous, sought after creatures in their oeuvre.

By Rebecca Stormont, Modern Design Specialist

Top Image: Gaetano Pesce UP 5 lounge chair and UP 6 ottoman for B&B Italia. Sold for $6,875

May 2024