Should you ever stop to think about marquetry furniture, chances are you envisage a magnificent but outdated technique found on the sort of fit-for-Versailles furniture that Louis XIV loved. So it’s hardly surprising that when avant-garde Parisian gallery Ymer & Malta launched the Sleeping Beauty collection, a ravishing range of marquetry pieces, at last year’s Design Miami/Basel fair, it found that many visitors had no idea that the technique was still alive and kicking, let alone that it was being used in such extraordinary ways.
While marquetry is far from being a mainstream trend – in its finest form it is too labour intensive and precious for it ever to have more than niche appeal – some cutting-edge designers, the very ones one might have expected to regard it as far too traditional to capture their interest, have over the past few years started to explore its possibilities.
One of the first to look at marquetry with new eyes was that fascinating Dutch-Belgian design duo Studio Job. At Design Miami 2008, their Bavaria collection (so named because it was inspired by 18th-century Bavarian hand-painted furniture), made exclusively for New York’s former design mecca Moss, used Indian rosewood and intricate brightly coloured laser-cut inlays of bucolic farm scenes – motifs that were a radical move away from traditional marquetry patterns. Then, in 2010, they went one step further, launching their wonderful Industry Series collection of furniture at Carpenters Workshop Gallery. There were some astonishing pieces (made to order, price on request) – a great dressoir, a magnificent screen, a table and a cabinet – all made from Indian rosewood inlaid with maple animals, insects and birds, as well as industrial objects such as weaponry, and, most surprisingly, silhouettes of skeletons.
Other protagonists to have emerged include Bethan Laura Wood, whose “love affair with marquetry started when I was doing my masters at the Royal College of Art”. For her graduate show in 2009 she produced a collection called Super Fake, for which she combined solid wood with laminates. “I used laminates because I wanted to change perceptions of the material,” she says. “I love them because once a batch of laminates is finished, that’s it. The exact same colour is never produced again, so I thought of them as having an ephemeral quality, which appealed to me.” She takes this rather humble, not highly esteemed material, and uses it as carefully and precisely as if it were the most precious of timbers. Milan’s Nilufar gallery saw her work and immediately commissioned a whole raft of limited-edition pieces, which can be bought online.
Wood’s Moon Rock series of circular tables (from €15,000) can be used individually or grouped together and is so called because the patterns were inspired by the craters on the moon and the composition of the solar system. Hot Rock shifts the focus to more earthy inspirations: the collection of striking cabinets (from €30,000) features bright colours that call to mind volcanic explosions. The pieces are not only arresting, they completely reinvigorate ancient marquetry techniques and cast them in a new light. Hard Rock (from €30,000), another extension of the Super Fake series, consists of laminate marquetry and powder-coated steel and was “designed to evoke a slice of landscape”. It is a rather mystifying objet designed to present the buyer with the challenge of how to assemble it and, indeed, how to use it. Nilufar brought some of Wood’s work to Masterpiece London this year with the intention of making the viewer look anew at this art (if you missed it, you could make a studio appointment with Wood).
In order to produce the Sleeping Beauty collection that had so astounded visitors to Design Miami/Basel last year, Ymer & Malta (a gallery known for its boundary-pushing exhibitions and commissions that have been snapped up by esteemed French museums and institutions) invited four designers to rethink marquetry as part of an ongoing push to stimulate innovation by encouraging new approaches to materials and techniques. The initiative was inspired by a sense that marquetry skills, which in the past had been so important in French aesthetic history, were dying out, workshops were closing and few contemporary designers seemed interested in it. For this project, it wasn’t just designers who were involved – cabinetmakers and varnishers (plus a very skilled 80-year-old marquetry craftsman) were also needed to pull it off.
“We wanted to avoid the ‘pastiche’ effect of using marquetry just as surface decoration,” says gallery owner Valerie Maltaverne. “Soon we were confronted with challenges, like where to find all the different shades of wood, what kind of varnish to use in order to avoid a yellow glossy effect and how to make these design pieces user-friendly.”
The result is a limited edition of five pieces using wood, marble, leather and glass. Most arresting to my mind is Benjamin Graindorge’s CloudInChest cabinet (from €160,000), which needed 3,000 different pieces of wood in 17 different shades, all inlaid by hand. London-based Sebastian Bergne, meanwhile, paid tribute to “Boulle” metal marquetry with the Illusion low table (€60,000), which mixes black ebony with copper, brass and tin. Normal Studio used a lively camouflage pattern, inspired by tree bark, and created a bench (€60,000) with hidden storage, while Sylvain Rieu-Piquet used black-tinted pear wood (commonly used at the end of the 19th century) and white ebony to form a snake-like pattern on an otherwise clean-lined table (€60,000). These magnificent pieces can be viewed by appointment in Ymer & Malta’s showroom.
This January’s Maison & Objet fair in Paris saw Portuguese brand Ginger & Jagger (which describes itself as creating “handcrafted high-end contemporary products inspired by nature”) show a stunning sideboard, Fractal (£14,292), which uses inlaid marble in rose, white and black for an interesting riff on the ancient technique, while at Linley in London, new designer Simon Hasan has moved away from a purely classical approach to create a small collection of six tables (from £1,850) that use the natural imperfections found in timber to give life and interest to the designs. Perhaps most interesting is the Graft coffee table (£6,500) made from fumed eucalyptus and brass.
The Sofa & Chair Company has also started to embrace this ancient technique with gusto. It has just produced three pieces in its Arlington Range – a cabinet on legs (£9,450), a console table (£6,250) and a coffee table (£4,275) – featuring marquetry using a special two-layer process. Contrasting coloured layers of solid-wood veneer are placed one on top of the other and the top layer is pierced, so exposing the lower one to create a shimmering grey and white chevron pattern.
Designer-makers at Carpenters Workshop Gallery, which first showed Studio Job’s extraordinary Industry Series, are also busy exploring the use of wood-on-wood and pietra dura (stone-on-stone, seen in the Taj Mahal) methods. “Artists are always interested in reinventing techniques from the past that are part of their cultural heritage,” says gallery co-founder Loic Le Gaillard, “and when marquetry is done well it can be extraordinarily beautiful.” The artist Marc Quinn, for instance, used blue agate to create floral motifs within pure white marble, alongside black Belgian marble, for his ravishingly beautiful Iceberg bench (from €85,000) and desk (from €140,000). Though created in 2008, pieces from the series can still be bought from the gallery. More recently, another artist, Ingrid Donat, has used leather and bronze to design the extraordinary Banc Tribal bench-cum-table (£45,000). That she was inspired by tribal art is abundantly clear from both the shape of the bench and the patterns. According to Le Gaillard, she wanted to create a piece of furniture with “both shine and texture – when you touch it you have a warm and cold feeling, so it challenges the senses”. She is now working on a much larger piece for this summer’s Art Basel.
Those who love this craft technique and would like to commission a bespoke piece might also be interested in Aryma Marquetry. Based in Wales, the company is run by Howard and Lisa Sansome, who discovered a residue of local marquetry expertise that they decided to explore, encourage and breathe new life into. Special commissions have ranged from personalised wooden panels for Rolls-Royces, yacht interiors, grand pianos and walls, to bigger projects including a huge triptych for a Kensington project by interior design firm Taylor Howes. The Sansomes’ stance for the future is confident: “We take on young design graduates. We’re not a group of traditional cabinetmakers looking back over our shoulders – we’re about making it relevant for today’s world.”