‘Cactus’ table lamp, circa 1962
THE ‘CACTUS’ TABLE lamp (circa 1962) by Serge Mouille brilliantly deconstructs the cactus plant into a black-and-white, highly graphic play on light and volume. It is a highlight of the ‘Icônes 1950’ exhibition at Galerie Jacques Lacoste on Avenue Matignon, near the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Mouille (1922-1988), a French lighting designer, reinterpreted the plant’s shape to realise this indisputably modern creation, striking a resonance both with abstract art and with the 1960s optical drawings by the British artist Bridget Riley. Made by Mouille in his studio, from hand-hammered painted metal, the sculptural piece exemplifies his excellent craftsmanship.
Above a cylindrical trunk, ovals with bent, pointed ends, painted black on one side and white on the other, are stacked on top of each other. Switched on, the lamp’s pictorial essence becomes amplified, the softly diffused light ricocheting between the geometric elements, casting patterned shadows onto the wall.
Mouille trained as a silversmith, joining the School of Applied Arts in Paris at the age of thirteen. He was apprenticed under Gabriel Lacroix before starting his own workshop. It was the great art deco modernist designer Jacques Adnet, in 1951, who commissioned Mouille to make his first lamp, a standing lamp with three arms, called ‘Black Shapes’ for the seductive, breast-shaped black metal hoods covering the lights.
Mouille also created a ceiling lamp inspired by a cactus and several ceiling lamps with multiple arms inspired by spiders. The ‘Cactus’ series, with their sharp edges and playful geometries, marked a departure in his work after the more organic pieces of the 1950s. According to Lacoste, this piece is unique and appearing on the market for the first time since the 1960s. It was one of the last lights he made before abandoning lighting design altogether in 1963 and returning to jewellery.
It was exhibited in 1962 at the Salon des Arts Ménagers (SAM), which showcased innovations in living and interior objects, and featured in the catalogue of a joint exhibition on Jean Prouvé and Mouille, which was organised by Galerie De Lorenzo and Galerie 1950. Since that period, it remained in a gallerist’s collection before being acquired by Lacoste.
Stylistically, it was counter-current to the time of its making, when curvilinear creations were often preferred. For this reason, it was unsold but nonetheless cherished by its former owner who held onto it for several decades. Today, it chimes with the resurgence of interest in works evoking nature.
“It was too avant-garde and radical for its era,” Lacoste says. “Serge Mouille made it at a moment when he felt close to the work of Dan Flavin and James Turrell. The originality of the lamp is that it tries to imitate nature and was realised with an economy of means. One recognises straight away that it’s a cactus. It combines the simplicity of construction, the contrast of fullness and emptiness, as well as the bold aesthetic side.”