"It was a revelation,” says the London-based designer Tim Gosling. “I’d always thought the fan-shaped patterns on Jean-Michel Frank’s iconic furniture were wood marquetry, even when I recently saw his work in a Christie’s auction. Then Hermès reissued some of his 1930s designs and I realised this wasn’t cut wood – it was straw.”
Gosling describes this eureka moment as if falling in love. Other designers, including David Collins Studio and Todhunter Earle, are equally enthralled. And, as contemporary homeowners increasingly demand glamorous, handcrafted finishes, the centuries-old technique of straw marquetry is experiencing a renaissance. It is similar in style to wood marquetry – with rye or wheat straw replacing cut timber – and while its natural tones vary from pale gold to deep brown, it can be dyed any colour. What’s unique, though, is a glowing iridescence unrivalled by other veneers, which, when worked into a pattern, conjures three-dimensional illusions. Achieving this remarkable effect is highly labour-intensive. “One square metre requires about 450 straws, representing about eight hours of work,” says Paris-based practitioner Stéphane Diss. Annabelle Filer, founder of materials-sourcing and advisory company SCIN, puts it more bluntly. “The technique needs the patience of an ox,” she says. “The straw strand is hand-selected, split, soaked, ironed, stuck edge-to-edge and inlaid to create a beguiling decorative surface.”
Historically, the technique is thought to have first been practised in Asia, with examples reaching England in the 17th century. In France, Louis XIV’s artisans created straw-marquetry furniture, while prisoners in the Napoleonic wars made boxes from cell-floor straw. The art-deco work of French interior decorators Jean-Michel Frank and André Groult revitalised the craft, and a collaboration that flourished following a meeting in 1924 between Frank and Jean-René Guerrand, a member of the Hermès family, resulted in various straw marquetry designs. Recently reissued by Hermès in numbered editions, these include low Soleil tables (from £9,780), the Cupboard of Secrets (£17,680) and a folding screen (£24,990) with a sunburst on one side and a straight straw pattern on the reverse.
“When we decided to reissue some of Jean-Michel Frank’s most iconic creations, we chose his straw-marquetry pieces to complement other furniture in leather, oak or rosewood,” says Hélène Dubrule, general manager of Hermès Maison. “We love straw marquetry at Hermès because it embodies the perfect oxymoron between simplicity and preciousness. Rye straw can be seen as a ‘poor’ material, but the artisanal know-how required to transform it is incredible. It gives objects a rare savoir-faire value yet with a sober and discreet look – it is craftsmanship with timeless elegance.”
Jean-Michel Frank’s ability to reveal the material’s beauty through minimal forms has inspired some of New York-based Atelier Viollet’s contemporary work, such as a cabinet ($31,200), a square table ($8,800) and a coffee table ($34,500). The company’s other glamorous designs include an organically shaped, Jean Royère-inspired coffee table ($29,500), folding screens with sunburst or fan patterns ($32,800), a fine credenza in straw, wenge and bronze ($44,500) and a handsome straw and leather desk ($39,200) and chair ($16,500).
“What fascinates me is that you start with such a simple material and end up with beautiful furniture,” says Sandrine Viollet, master of straw marquetry at Atelier Viollet. “You can’t use any machines to work the straw – only hand tools – so there’s a connection with the material throughout the process. It’s a pleasure using this centuries-old technique, and a challenge to innovate using new shapes and daring colours.” Viollet’s husband, Jean-Paul, comes from a long line of wood-workers whose workshop was founded in France in 1836 and reborn 150 years later in Brooklyn, New York. When, in 2008, straw marquetry was included in the French crafts award Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France for the first time, she spent 1,500 hours creating 100 custom colours to win. “You can play with colours and shades indefinitely,” she says.
Meanwhile, Tim Gosling’s love affair with straw marquetry has led to his company, Gosling, collaborating with Brittany-based furniture-makers Jallu Ebénistes. “Each season the cut straw is a slightly different colour,” says Gosling. “It’s amazingly versatile. You can create all sorts of subtle patterns and, being very malleable, it can be used on curved and complex pieces of furniture. And its reaction to light is incredible. We’re refurbishing a Venetian palazzo’s top-floor apartment, where strong light kills saturated colour in fabrics so they just look grey. In contrast, straw marquetry works brilliantly because it reflects the light so well.” The material’s subtle shade of dyed pink, used on doors, fitted cabinets, bookcases and desks in the apartment’s study, has taken seven months to achieve. Gosling has also combined straw marquetry with grey harewood and bone in a glamorous drinks cabinet (about £32,400) for a London home. A dramatic, elliptically shaped low table with an azure, straw-marquetry top set on a japanned-sycamore base (about £19,200) was designed in collaboration with Korner interiors for another London client, while 3m-tall, black-straw-marquetry panels with edging in chrome (about £36,000 for a pair) now border a fireplace in a contemporary house in Geneva.
“Straw marquetry is full of contradictions,” says Sandra Jallu of Jallu Ebénistes. “The material is fragile yet durable. Its shimmery brilliance is impossible to replicate. And the technique, which has remained virtually unchanged, is simple yet deceptively complicated – easy to learn, but difficult to master.” The brand has teamed up with Paris-based interior designer Brigitte Saby to make some striking pieces, including a magnificent wall panel, a sideboard and a desk in parchment/vellum and straw marquetry (all items price on request). Meanwhile, two of Jallu Ebénistes’ other straw-marquetry designs – a dressing table with a stool (€14,200) and a side table (€4,450) – are available to order from online design curator Bespoke Global.
“This is one of the great French decorative arts and we’re proud to be keeping the tradition alive and giving a new generation the chance to enjoy its beauty,” says Sandra’s partner, Yann Jallu. Their company – granted the French government’s Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant (EPV) label in recognition of excellent work – recently worked with London-based interior designers Todhunter Earle on several bespoke commissions, including a dressing table (price on request), as well as a dressing-table island and a run of cupboard doors for a Belgravia home. “Straw marquetry is very eye-catching and, depending on a pattern’s orientation, reflects light in the most incredible way,” says the company’s co-owner, Emily Todhunter. “It’s very glamorous but not at all glitzy, as there’s an earthy, artisanal quality, too.” Alongside the pieces created with Jallu Ebénistes, Todhunter Earle has also developed a round console table with a turquoise straw “sunburst” top (price on request) for a Switzerland-based client, in collaboration with Paris-based interior designer Nicolas Aubagnac.
“I discovered straw marquetry when an antiques dealer sent an amazing 1930s cupboard by the French designer Jean Royère to my workshop for restoration,” says Aubagnac. “I fell in love with the material and felt that straw was meant to catch the light, so my first design was the Helios lamp [€3,840], which has a straw marquetry support. When straw is illuminated, its rich colours turn to liquid gold.” Further designs include the limited-edition Helios coffee table (€19,200) in solid tinted ash with a sun-patterned straw-marquetry top, and the limited-edition Helios chest of drawers (€42,000), whose Indian-rosewood veneer gleams with three straw-marquetry suns. Earlier this year, Aubagnac created the Atys floor lamp (€10,800), with fan-shaped patterns decorating its faceted stand. “Its strong, simple shape lets the straw reveal all its delicate colours and light reflections,” he says. “I like the idea of transforming a humble material into a sophisticated and precious one. Designers should care about preserving techniques such as straw marquetry and use them in contemporary pieces so they don’t disappear forever.”
Violeta Galan, of London-based Atelier Straw Marquetry, agrees. “We mustn’t let old crafts die and risk losing the beautiful things that might be born from these traditions,” she says. Showing her designs for the first time at Tent London during September’s London Design Festival, Galan has created a collection that includes the bold Vortex table in red and gold or blue and brown (£3,400), the multicoloured Diamond cabinet (£9,900), and striking pieces such as the OpArt drinks cabinet (from £14,900), the Fern bedside cabinet (£4,900), the Chevron coffee table (£3,400) and the Tandem cabinet (£8,200). “For me, the technique is all about combining shape, pattern, colour and craftsmanship in a unique way,” she says.
Reinvention is also rife at David Collins Studio. Having designed bespoke tables for the Ritz-Carlton Residences show home at MahaNakhon, Bangkok, and for London clients, the studio is now taking straw marquetry to the next level by experimenting with colour combinations, shade gradations and pattern-creating stains (price on request). “We like to reinvigorate traditional techniques and materials by giving them our own twist,” says creative director Simon Rawlings.
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Stéphane Diss is similarly inventive. A keen collector of art-deco furniture, he began making straw work after failing to find a restorer for a damaged Jean-Michel Frank screen he had bought at auction. His bespoke pieces and limited editions include chairs, tables, seats, screens, boxes and picture frames (all price on request). Having developed his own processes and tools, he is currently working with innovative pairings such as straw marquetry and Lucite. “What interests me is mixing its sheen and colour with materials such as leather, glass, parchment, rare woods or Plexiglas,” he says. “Ideas for different combinations lead me on.” So the future for this extraordinary material seems as golden as a field of wheat.