Marquetry in the history of design

Marquetry is a decoration made with wood veneers and various other materials (mother-of-pearl, ivory, stone, shagreen, non-ferrous metals, straw), generally cut according to a design and glued to a support (furniture, woodwork, or painting). Over the centuries, cabinetmakers have perfected the technique of marquetry to create sumptuous furniture with very figurative or more abstract decorations. In this article, we look back at the evolution of this ornamental technique, which was very popular during two major historical periods and which some contemporary designers are revisiting with taste

Photo credit : Antiquité en France
Louis XIV-Regency chest of drawers, 18th century Parisian work stamped JLF DELORME (Jean Louis Faizelot Delorme). A superb example of marquetry work: the structure is made of exotic wood veneer, with inlays of brass, pewter, ivory and ornamentation of chased gilt bronze.

In ancient Egypt, certain highly skilled craftsmen already practised inlaying by placing pieces of bone, ivory, glass paste and stone in the wood. It was not until the 14th century and the Italian Renaissance that Florentines placed thin plates of precious wood or mother-of-pearl – previously cut with scissors – into wooden furniture. Italy is considered the cradle of traditional marquetry.

The 17th and 18th centuries marked the first golden age of marquetry, particularly in France, where the historical context allowed the development of richly ornamented furniture (Louis XIV and Louis XV style). Louis XIV undertook a series of audacious works whose objective was to restore the image of power of the Kingdom: restoration of the palace and the Tuileries garden, construction of the modern “Versailles”, development of the National Manufacture of Gobelins. The richly decorated ceremonial furniture with veneers and inlays was synonymous with wealth: marquetry reached its peak.

Photo credit : New York, Metropolitan Museum of ArtExample of
a broken desk made around 1685.Marquetry after Jean Berain I (1640-1711), cabinetmaker: Alexandre-Jean Oppenordt (1639-1715).

It also benefits from the export of precious woods from the colonies (Guiana amourette, Indian rosewood). One man revolutionised the technique of marquetry. André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), the king’s cabinetmaker, developed the technique known as “La Tarsia a incastro” or “part against part”. The designs are formed in negative and symmetry. The Atelier Boulle used copper, brass and red tortoise shell cut-outs.

Photo credit : Museum für Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt
Medallion of Max Emanuel of Bavaria, circa 1694-1695, marquetry by André Charles Boulle, bois de rapport, ebony, amaranth, maple, walnut, ash, mahogany, rosewood, padouk, pewter, brass and tortoiseshell. Chased and gilded bronze. The Boulle workshop often made “flower paintings”.

Although techniques were perfected, marquetry fell into disuse in the 19th century before being revived under the impulse of the Art Nouveau movement at the turn of the 20th century. In reaction to the industrial era, Art Nouveau favoured furniture with rich ornamentation whose forms were inspired by fauna and flora.

Émile Gallé (1846-1904), leader of the Nancy School, incorporated wooden marquetry ornaments into his furniture. In Paris, Samuel “Siegfried” Bing (1838-1905), a dealer in Japanese and Oriental art, disseminated Art Nouveau, particularly the creations of architects, cabinetmakers and furniture designers such as Georges de Feure (1868-1943), Eugène Gaillard (1862-1933) and Édouard Colonna (1862-1948).

Photo credit : Gazette Drouot
Splendid moulded and carved walnut chest by the designer Émile Gallé. The lid and the three sides with a marquetry background of characters. The sides with marquetry of woodcutters and their dog, magpies on a snowy forest background. A splendid piece of marquetry!
Photo credit : Jon Mills
Low sideboard with rounded sides in black lacquered wood, design: Georges de Feure, circa 1920. The sideboard opens with a door in the front with a marquetry decoration representing a vase of stylized flowers, 2 drawers and 2 compartments Monogrammed “DF”.
Photo credit : Antiques de Laval
Tea table with 2 trays signed Louis Majorelle (1859-1926, Ecole de Nancy), Art Nouveau period. Model “Au Gui l’An Neuf”, veneered with various types of wood (mahogany, walnut…), with inlaid decoration of mistletoe branches and butterflies.
Photo credit : Antiques de Laval
Tea table with 2 trays signed Louis Majorelle (1859-1926, Ecole de Nancy), detail, Art nouveau period. Model “Au Gui l’An Neuf”, in veneer of various wood species (mahogany, walnut…), with marquetry decoration of mistletoe branches and butterflies.

Art Deco succeeded Art Nouveau with furniture with more geometric and refined lines. Nevertheless, marquetry remained quite popular, the era belongs to the great decorators who continue to use “rich” materials. Straw marquetry, in particular, experienced a new boom in the 1920s with Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941) and André Groult (1884-1966).

Photo credit: Leclere – Maison de ventes
Double-sided screen with six panels of straw marquetry with different motifs, design: Jean-Michel Frank. The technique remains quite similar to that of wood marquetry, with straw replacing the wood veneer.
Photo credit : 1st DibsRare
Art Deco pedestal table with 2 levels in straw marquetry designed by André Groult

After this second golden age, marquetry became more discreet after the war. It is no longer really in fashion, but it continues to seduce a public that loves furniture with a meticulous finish. In France, the Jansen furniture house revisits old styles with quality materials. Its clients include the wealthy international and British royal families, whose beautiful marquetry furniture adorns their ceremonial salons.

Photo credit : Design Market
A neoclassical desk of Louis XVI inspiration in mahogany and pastel-coloured wood quartefeuille marquetry dates from the early 1970s, in the spirit of the neo-classicism of the Jansen house of the 1960s and 1970s.

Among the contemporary designers who are fond of marquetry is Jean-Claude Mahey, a designer who founded his contemporary furniture company in 1976, specialising in furniture using precious metals and rich woods. Abroad, the Swiss interior architect and designer Dieter Waeckerlin (1930-2013) designs furniture with a reputation for high quality craftsmanship that appeals to both local and international clients. In Germany, Heinz Lilienthal (1927-2006), one of the German pioneers of glass painting, specialises in wall decorations in metal, wood and concrete, and produces inlaid table furniture.

Photo credit : Design Market
Large executive desk, design: Jean Claude Mahey, 1970s. Lacquered wood and brass finish. The top is decorated with brass “marquetry” and the handles are also in brass.
Photo credit : Ebay @laparenthese83
Lamp in burr marquetry, design Jean-Claude Mahey, 1970.
Photo credit : Design Market
Swiss coffee table, design: Dieter Waeckerlin, 1960s. Palm tree inlay and black metal base.
Photo credit : Design Market
Swiss coffee table, detail of the marquetry work, design: Dieter Waeckerlin, 1960s. Palm tree inlay and black metal base.
Photo credit : Kisth design
Large sideboard “B 40” with 3 doors and 3 drawers covered with teak marquetry, design: Dieter Waeckerlin for Idealheim, 1958.
Photo credit : Design Market
Vintage coffee table in fossil marquetry, design: Heinz Lilienthal, 1970.
Photo credit : Design Market
Vintage coffee table with fossil marquetry, detail of the marquetry work, design: Heinz Lilienthal, 1970.

Marquetry remains very popular in Italy. The town of Sorrento in the Bay of Naples has a centuries-old tradition of inlaying precious woods. Some “historic” houses, such as the Basile house founded in 1930, still produce furniture in precious wood made by craftsmen specialising in marquetry (under the brand name Studio Hebanon). The great Italian architect and designer Alessandro Mendini (1931-2019), tried his hand at marquetry for the publisher Zanotta in the mid 1980s.

Photo credit : Design Market
Italian vintage drinks trolley in Sorrento marquetry, 1950s. A baroque style piece, high gloss ribbon mahogany veneer inlaid with a beautiful floral decoration in blond wood marquetry.
Photo credit : Design Market
Vintage marquetry bar cabinet signed Vittorio Dassi (1893-1973), 1950. Dassi, an Italian furniture designer, made furniture in the 1940s and 1950s from noble woods such as rosewood, cherry, ash and walnut, often decorated with inlaid panels and crystal signed by eminent master glassmakers.
Photo credit : Design Market
Calamobio design chest of drawers, design by Alessandro Mendini for Zanotta, 1985/1988. Wooden structure and legs, polychrome marquetry

Modern marquetry continues to be popular: it often combines several woods, includes leather and metal inserts, and plays with colours. Some designers like to revisit it to test their creativity.

Photo credit : Divisare
Rosewood sideboard with beautiful marquetry work, design: Massimo Morozzi for Edra, 2016.
Photo credit: Bethan Laura Wood
“Hot rock” cabinet series design: Bethan Laura Wood, when marquetry is brought back into fashion… Here laminated marquetry, coloured MDF, powdered steel, satin brass. Limitedseries.

François Boutard