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Swellboy on… a great French craftsman

A visit to the atelier of a great French craftsman

Swellboy on… a great French craftsman

Image: Brijesh Patel

December 30 2010
Nick Foulkes

The other day in Paris I took the precaution of visiting the atelier of Gilbert Rotival. If there are those sufficiently deranged and idle to count themselves regular readers or “followers” of Swellboy, then they may recall that I wrote about swords commissioned by members of the Académie française – in fact the chance to wear a sword in the course of one’s lexicographical endeavours is just one of the many benefits to befall the French.

Monsieur Rotival does not make swords for Academicians; but he does make some of the boxes that they go in. He is the third generation in a family that has been working in the same place for more than 100 years. A proud bearer of the title Meilleur Ouvrier de France, he continues in a tradition begun by his grandfather whose line was in nécessaires de voyage.

What is so wonderful is that he still has pieces from the early years of the 20th century, beautifully crafted travelling, dressing and writing sets, with cunning little drawers, latches, hinges. Not a thing was forgotten, so as well as the obvious accoutrements of glove stretchers and inkwells, there was even a small leather band that fitted around the Russian boar bristle of the ivory-backed hairbrushes so that this trichological accessory could fit snugly in the space created for it.

Grand-père Rotival must have been a truly remarkable individual as he not only created these superb three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles of travelling luxury, but he went to the trouble of protecting his invention with all the rigmarole of the French patent office: brevets, marques déposées and the like. Imagine therefore the irritation of his grandson when, in a handsome coffee-table book about the great luggage of the art deco period, one of his grandfather’s creations was wrongly attributed to Hermès; admittedly it was signed Hermès, so the error was probably unintentional. However, when he went to Hermès with all the relevant brevets, marques déposées and what have you, they said that the error having been made in good faith, there was nothing they could do. He is philosophical, as befits a third-generation Meilleur Ouvrier, and I hope that this mention of his grandfather’s creation will serve as a corrective footnote.

M Rotival himself is no slouch when it comes to the travelling luxury line; he created a number of pieces of luggage for Madame Balmain, or more accurately, Madame Balmain’s dogs, who were transported in Rotival-designed splendour and whose nécessaires de voyage were housed in a miniature wardrobe trunk suitable for canine use.

I tried to coax M Rotival into making me a backgammon board, or travelling bureau, but he said that what interests him most today is the making of couture jewellery boxes for the likes of Jar and the British aesthete Mark Lloyd, and it is to the latter that I am grateful for having made the introduction. In time I hope that M Rotival can be induced to part with his collection of “Rotivalia” so that it can take its rightful place in the Musée d’Orsay.