The timeless allure of leather marquetry

Luxury brands are reviving the intricate art of leather marquetry, creating distinctive designs that are sometimes whimsical, sometimes retro-modern – but always superbly crafted. Mark C O’Flaherty reports

Fendi leather Large Kan I bag, £3,460
Fendi leather Large Kan I bag, £3,460

It took so long and was so difficult there were times when it looked like it might be impossible. “We got through a lot of leather,” says Ramesh Nair, creative director at Moynat. “There was immense trial and error. Actually, it’s more accurate to say there was a lot of disaster.” When accessories designer Nair took the helm in 2011 to relaunch the luggage brand – acquired by LVMH the year before – he wanted to develop something unique: a concept that would become as synonymous with the heritage brand as the repeating “M”-initial canvas that has featured on its cases since 1920. Nair wanted to find a new way of creating leather bags – something that pushed the limits of artisans. The answer lay in a technique that was absurdly time-consuming, and would take stealth luxe to new heights.

Marquetry, which is now enjoying a moment among niche high-end leather brands, was the way forward. Essentially, it is the piecing together of different cuts of textile to create a single new surface, with the pieces applied in a jigsaw formation rather than in layers. “The aesthetic is perfect because I wanted to create pieces without added ornamentation,” Nair explains. It was a technique that the designer, who adores art deco and art nouveau antiques, already appreciated from furniture, as it is most commonly practised in graphic wood. 

Clockwise from left: Paula Cademartori leather Alex bag, £1,225. Dries Van Noten leather clutch, £540. Moynat leather dog notebook cover, £310, and leather cat passport cover, £340
Clockwise from left: Paula Cademartori leather Alex bag, £1,225. Dries Van Noten leather clutch, £540. Moynat leather dog notebook cover, £310, and leather cat passport cover, £340

“It also came from my heritage,” says Nair, leafing through the pages of a Moynat leather-covered notebook (£570) bearing a marquetry vintage-car graphic. “When you tell someone you come from an Indian background, they think of embroidery and kitsch. I am from Kerala, which is the opposite of the maximalism of the north. The south is all about white, black and grey, and the homes there are relatively plain but have detailed patterns on the ceilings, carved by local artisans, making each room different. I took a lot of inspiration from that.”

Moynat’s marquetry launched in 2014 in the form of a playful collaboration with musician Pharrell Williams – a range of limited edition bags featuring naïve imagery of trains. Since then, Nair – who developed his minimalist-with-a-twist ethos working alongside Martin Margiela, then Jean Paul Gaultier, when each was creative director of womenswear at Hermès – has collaborated with Mambo, the street artist, whose simple, figurative but chic graphics, with colour blocks reminiscent of graffiti, work perfectly on small leather goods. Moynat’s new pieces released this autumn include passport covers (£340), notebook covers (£310) and key fobs (£290) with images of cats, dogs and paw-prints.

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The style, for all its simplicity and strength, is extremely tricky to construct. “When we first started experimenting with marquetry we worked with craftsmen from the Compagnons du Devoir guild, and we looked at all the ways we could connect leather without stitching,” Nair explains. “We knew from looking at wood marquetry, and marble in wood too, that you never cut in a straight line; the trick is to cut at an angle, to create a negative and a positive.”

The technique, so time-intensive and difficult to perfect, is understandably still relatively scarce, even among heavyweight luxury brands. Yet Louis Vuitton has added stunning leather marquetry to its ongoing Objets Nomades project at Milan Design Week this year. Since 2012, the brand has invited some of the famous names in interiors, from the Campana Brothers to Marcel Wanders, to create products inspired by travel. India Mahdavi’s new Talisman table (from £9,800) is based on the occasional tray tables used in southeast Asia, with a base that folds up like a book when not in use. But its “portable” concept belies the permanence reflected in the exquisite craftsmanship: the tray itself is made from vibrant blue diamond-shaped cuts of leather, arranged by marquetry into a beautiful fractal pattern. Mahdavi took the image of the Turkish talisman against the “evil eye” as her starting point and abstracted it into something chic and contemporary. 

India Mahdavi for Louis Vuitton cowhide and wood Talisman table, from £9,800. The pieces of leather are inlaid by hand
India Mahdavi for Louis Vuitton cowhide and wood Talisman table, from £9,800. The pieces of leather are inlaid by hand

One of the most appealing aspects of marquetry is how whimsical it can appear. The technical challenges of the craft restrict its use to fairly basic forms, giving some marquetry objects a folk sensibility. When Louis Vuitton launched its Gifting collection this year, the Joy of Decorating range included marquetry matryoshka-style nesting boxes (Clarence, from £365), each with a simple four-petal flower graphic on the lid. They are simple, beautiful, uplifting pieces of handicraft. 

Whimsy is also at work at Loewe, which has quickly established itself as one of the main players in modern marquetry, forging a look that is upbeat “pop” as much as it is luxe. The house launched its first handbag collection using the technique last summer, alongside a showcase of quirky one-off interiors pieces at Milan Design Week, and for this season, creative director Jonathan Anderson has produced a collection of bags (Hammock bag, £2,350) with chic polka dots in red and black, or tan and black. 

From left: Louis Vuitton leather and canvas Clarence nesting box for the Gifting collection, from £365. Loewe calfskin Dot Intarsia Hammock bag, £2,350
From left: Louis Vuitton leather and canvas Clarence nesting box for the Gifting collection, from £365. Loewe calfskin Dot Intarsia Hammock bag, £2,350

Fendi is embracing the technique with élan. “These are accessories with distinctive qualities,” says Martina Micheli, luxury women’s accessories buyer at Luisa Via Roma. “They represent craftsmanship, uniqueness and glamour, and they make a statement.” She points to the Large Kan I bag (£3,460) that launched in a pastel-coloured, gelato-striped edition earlier this year and remains a strong seller. For autumn, Fendi has a new version of the style, using marquetry to create a graphic mosaic that looks like a pixellated image. With leather tiles in black, brown, grey and white, and scalloped edges, it looks as high-tech as it does luxurious. 

Liberty has also bought into the marquetry look for this season. “We were really excited to see some amazing techniques in leatherwork across some of our key brands,” says Miranda Williams, the London store’s accessories buyer, citing a striking piece in Dries Van Noten’s collection: “There is a full takeover of 1970s glam, including a clutch (£540) with the leather cut out in a decorative patchwork and inlaid with rich velvet.”

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The effect of leather marquetry, while often subtle, can also be so distinctive that it defines a designer’s style. Paula Cademartori is an Italy-based accessories designer who grew up in Brazil and moved to Europe to work at Versace’s couture and leather goods ateliers, before launching her own brand in 2010. Her background is in industrial design, which informed her choice to invest so heavily in marquetry. “It’s a technique that’s always been part of my brand’s identity,” she explains. “I think it fully communicates my philosophy as well as my aesthetic – careful attention to detail and an appreciation of craftsmanship.”

Cademartori’s new-season bags bear marquetry florals that look like Arts and Crafts prints refracted through the lens of psychedelic illustration: think William Morris crossed with The Beatles in Yellow Submarine. The Alex (£1,225) features a botanical explosion of purple, pale pink, yellow, red and orange on a base of black and navy, while the symmetrical flowers on the Rachel (£1,270) point towards one another on a nude background. Cademartori has honed an immediately recognisable style. “I imagine my bags as a canvas on which I can paint with no limits,” she says. “Marquetry is always about pushing my abilities further. I have started developing new combinations of bright colours and textures, creating mainly floral designs in virtually limitless graphics.”

Despite every designer having their own approach to marquetry, one thing all these pieces has in common is an exclusive nature. Couture aside, there are few manufacturing techniques that involve so much time and skill. “Our customers appreciate craftsmanship and heritage,” says Marina Larroudé, fashion director at Barneys in New York. “They love the quality and history behind brands such as Loewe and Moynat. But let’s face it, how many classic bags can one person have? Now, our customers are looking for individuality without compromising quality. Heritage brands are listening to their needs and developing intricate techniques that make a product relevant to today’s fashion without abandoning their roots.” 

At a time when high-end labels are, on occasion, resorting to mass-production techniques, leather marquetry represents something refreshing that is the diametric opposite. And if the imagery strikes a slightly retro note, the craftsmanship is absolutely modern and utterly unfakeable. To the educated eye, the best examples look very much like auction and museum material of the future – the very definition of the investment piece.

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