NIKI’S SPACE: Artistic Furniture and Decor

“Among other things I love is furniture. I have an irresistible urge to make things for the home. Crazy fun things.
Niki de Saint Phalle at her house in the Essonne, circa 1987. Photo: NCAF Archives

Interior design and decoration can be used as a form of self-expression, a way to reflect someone’s personality and to create a comforting, safe space in their own home. 

Niki de Saint Phalle certainly used her talent and vision to produce many types of furniture such as tables, chairs, benches, vases, mirrors, and lamps that also filled her own personal space. 

Saint Phalle first began by building sets for various theater shows and ballets, such as providing stage decoration for both  Eloge de la folie and Lysistrata, in 1966.

Once Saint Phalle began constructing large-scale livable sculptures, she created furniture to decorate the interiors. Projects such as HON (1966),  Le Rêve de L’Oiseau (1969) which consisted of 3 separate sculpture houses, and The Sphinx inside of the Tarot Garden, all housed various furniture pieces made by the artist herself. 

Although these art projects are more known for their architectural importance in Saint Phalle’s span of artwork, she did contribute to the interior aesthetic as well.

In an interview with Lea Singer published in Apartamento, Issue #28 in Autumn 2021, the artist’s granddaughter, Bloum Cardenas, was asked to describe what the domestic setting was like for Niki living in the Sphinx at the Tarot Garden. She answered:

“At the time there weren’t mirrors all over; they were in certain areas like on the chimney, around the windows, and in the kitchen. Jean made a big lamp that hangs over the dining table, like he’d done in her other house. That made it homey. I loved taking a shower in her snake shower, that was really fun. It was also the first time I ever experienced heated floors. As she was building she knew it was going to get cold and humid, so she put heaters below and then realised years later that it was really bad for her arthritis. But it was a real pleasure to walk around barefoot with heat coming from the ceramics.”
Niki de Saint Phalle inside the Empress at the Tarot Garden, 1987. Photo: Laurent Condominas 
Interior of the Empress after mirror mosaic was applied, Tarot Garden. Photo: NCAF Archives

Writer Ninon Gauthier explains in a 1983 article “… for Niki de Saint Phalle the creation of furniture is part of continuity with the rest of her artistic production. These pieces of furniture don’t just serve, they speak”.  (Gauthier, Ninon. “Des meubles et accessoires qui parient le langage de l’art” Décormag, April/May 1983, pp 29-30)

Study for Chairs, 1973. collection Sprengel Museum, Hannover. Donation Niki de Saint Phalle 2000.

Saint Phalle’s first functional art was for the set of the movie Un Reve plus long que la nuit in 1975. The movie was written and directed by Saint Phalle and she also acted in it, alongside her daughter Laura Duke, Jean Tinguely, Bernhard Luginbühl, Laurent Condominas, Marina Karella, and others. Saint Phalle created decorative elements for the film, such as thrones, tables, and mirrors, all made out of metal and polyester paint that ais to give the fantastic fairytale theme an organic and dreamy look.

When making her furniture in the 1970s, Saint Phalle used painted polyester as she did with much of her artwork up to this time. The polyester resin was the sturdiest material that the artist could use to create her iconic shapes. Unfortunately, the fumes released when the material was cut, burnt the artist’s lungs and caused her long-term respiratory damage.

One of the first exhibitions showing much of Saint Phalle’s furniture, titled Niki de Saint Phalle, was in 1981 at Galerie Samy Kinge in Paris. When the gallerist Samy Kinge was asked about the most memorable collaboration he had with Saint Phalle he responded:

“Well maybe one of the nicest moments was when Niki decided to make sculptures…every day usable sculptures; there was an armchair, there was a mirror, there were vases..tables, also a stool. I will always remember this exhibition. 

(Kinge, Samy. Interview. Conducted by Philippe Ungar. 31 March 2011)
Source: NCAF Archives

Saint Phalle created “multiple originals” of her art decor (mainly vases) to finance her large-scale projects, specifically The Tarot Garden in Italy. As noted in the MoMA PS1 catalog Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life …we must reevaluate her unique production model. Her drive toward financial freedom, coupled with her tendency toward overabundance and an excess of contradictory feigns, resulted in a profusion of multiples as well as her decision to license her artwork”. 

After Saint Phalle moved to California she continued creating furniture, this time wanting to make it out of wood. She specifically wanted to make her “serpent chairs” and was very adamant that they had to be comfortable to sit on.

Around 1994, Saint Phalle met professional woodworker Del Cover and for the next seven years, he created over 100 pieces for the artist. This includes the famous Serpent Chairs and Serpent Mirrors. The wood dying process was unique, and Mr. Cover remembers the difficulties to perfect the colors as well as the shapes.

Niki de Saint Phale and Del Cover, 1996. Photo: Julie Bubar
“It was quite a challenge because what Niki would come up with in designs were not things that you would normally try to do in wood and I don’t know how many times I’d have to say “Niki, I can’t - wood doesn’t do that but here’s what we can do” and then I’d try to find a way to get what she wanted and it was quite the challenge. A lot of engineering went into these pieces cause they’re not standard format for what you’d normally build.” 

(Cover, Del. Interview. Conducted by Philippe Ungar. 1 Nov. 2013)

With her beautifully artistic yet functional (and comfortable!) furniture pieces, Saint Phalle gives the art enthusiast a chance to bring a little bit of herself into their home.

Source: NCAF Archives
“My house is a sanctuary where I dream, where I am with myself. I made 2 armchairs, a table, the stool, a mirror and lamps. My snake lamps are objects to be tamed. They definitely need flowers and plants, though.” 

(Saint Phalle, Niki de. “Möbel für mich selbst gemacht” Architektur & Wohnen,  2 June 1981, pp 139-143.)

In 1999, Saint Phalle donated many of her decorative art pieces to the prestigious Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The list included chairs, tables, vases, lamps, carpets, and elements from films that remain as part of the museum’s permanent collection.

A collection of Niki de Saint Phalle’s furniture and decorative arts is currently being shown at the Mingei International Museum in an exhibition titled “Niki and Mingei”, whereas the term “mingei” here hints both at the artist’s relationship to the Museum while residing in San Diego, as well as “folk art with functionality in form and design”. The exhibition is on view until October 2nd, 2022.