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
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.