Circle and Line

History of the Mobile : Calder and Beyond

Jessica GoudeauComment
 Calder with Josephine Baker IV (c. 1928) during the filming of a Pathé newsreel, 1929

Calder with Josephine Baker IV (c. 1928) during the filming of a Pathé newsreel, 1929

Mobiles are ethereal, kinetic sculptures that have been gracing artistic spaces since 1930. The artist Alexander Calder, an American sculptor, had been tweaking a wire design for years—artists were in love with his wire miniature Circus featuring an artistic rendition of Josephine Baker. But Calder couldn’t get the play of light he wanted. Pablo Picasso and Julio González had been working on open wire sculptures since the 1920s that framed light to make it part of the art form. In 1930, Calder was in Paris visiting the studio of Piet Mondrian, a Dutch painter best known for his pioneering abstract art. Mondrian had some colored cardboard rectangles on his wall. Calder wondered what they would look like if they were moving. That thought changed everything. 

At first, Calder set the colorful cardboard and metal parts in motion with cranks and mobiles, like he had his Circus. But soon, he realized that he did not need those external forces to provide movement to these balanced wires. In 1931, French avant-garde Marcel Duchamp saw the elegant sculpture hanging in Calder’s studio and gave it a name that combined “motion” and “motive” in French: the mobile. 

    Alexander Calder - Rouge Triomphant (Triumphant Red), 1959-1965


Alexander Calder - Rouge Triomphant (Triumphant Red), 1959-1965

From its birth out of the avant-garde artistic tradition, the mobile was both cause and movement, motif and sculpture, light and air. 

For years, to have a Calder mobile was a valuable artistic edition to some of the most discerning homes. The poet Elizabeth Bishop hung one in the home of her longtime partner, Lota Macedo de Soares, in Brazil. The Tate Modern featured 100 of the best-known Calder mobiles in 2015. Collectors with discriminating taste have long valued a real Calder mobile.

But the avant-garde beginnings of this art form were soon forgotten by the public. Mobiles became synonymous with babies. The mechanized, plush-animal rendition that most people associate with the word ‘mobile’ is a far cry from the chic, art deco sculptures Calder envisioned.

Artists, however, remained mesmerized with the play of art and light that so captured Calder and other early 20th century sculptors. Some were directly influenced by Calder; others made creations alongside or before his in an artistic era obsessed with capturing truth and beauty with minimalist lines and innovative techniques. 

In 1920, Man Ray—an American Dadaist and Surrealist in Paris—hung 63 coat hangers in an assemblage called Obstruction. It’s an example of what Marcel Duchamp called a ‘readymade’—an artistic form of finding art in common, everyday objects. A version of Obstruction from 1961 currently hangs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York

 Man Ray – Obstruction, 1920, widely considered the first example of Mobile Art

Man Ray – Obstruction, 1920, widely considered the first example of Mobile Art

Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures within boxes pair heavy objects with light space around them. Giacometti used open metal boxes in which he framed objects from other cultures, particularly from Africa (objectified by artists in the first half of the Twentieth Century as “primitive”), as well as shapes and innovative takes on the human form. In doing so, he connoted intimacy, like a bed, or existentialism, as if the frames were coffins. Many of his mobiles and other sculptures were displayed in the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec in a 2018 exhibition.

 Alberto Giacometti - Boule suspendue, 1930-1931.

Alberto Giacometti - Boule suspendue, 1930-1931.



Bruno Mari, an Italian artist, was tweaking wire creations in the 1930s, around the time DuChamp was naming Calder’s sculptures “mobiles.” Mari also worked with light fixtures to create art in one of the most utilitarian aspects of Twentieth-Century life. Mari’s mobiles, which he titled “useless machines” use geometric shapes and three dimensional movement to epitomize his aesthetic, “design as art” (also the title of his 1966 book, a staple in Art History studies). The Estorick Collection in London featured his ethereal, industrial creations in an exhibition in 2012.

 Bruno Munari - Macchina Inutile (Useless Machines), 1945

Bruno Munari - Macchina Inutile (Useless Machines), 1945


Julio Le Parc, an Argentinian artist, was fascinated with optical illusions. His mobiles are examples of what Le Parc called “disturbances in the artistic system.” His illusory art disrupted the boundaries between art work and passive viewer. The Pérez Art Museum in Miami featured his dramatic, light-infused mobiles in its 2016-2017 exhibit, “Julio Le Part: Form into Action.” 

 Julio Le Parc - Continuel Mobile, 1962/1996

Julio Le Parc - Continuel Mobile, 1962/1996


In making her mobiles, designer Corie Humble draws from historical references but—as artists have always done—reinvents the form in a new way. Her geometric shapes hold hints of the earliest avant-garde roots of the mobile art form. She uses a mechanical farming technique called the “whippletree,” used to distribute force evenly through linkages, in order to achieve the perfect pivotal balance. Her brass materials capture and reflect the light in a way that is reminiscent of the often-industrial influences of the mobile but which invokes ancient, museum-quality art forms.

Future and past, smooth and severe, light and shadow—Corie’s mobiles combine an air of avant-garde with a wealth of warmth. These handmade sculptures move as Calder imagined, invoking the rich artistic tradition behind them and incorporating them with cutting-edge design motifs. The results are lyrical, futuristic, and timeless, all at once. 

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