Marquetry is making a comeback. Ornate, detailed and visibly handcrafted, the art of creating designs and images by applying pieces of veneer to a solid wood surface has been around since the 16th century – and is now enjoying a revival.
In the past few years, designers have rediscovered the possibilities of the craft and British designers in particular are experimenting with new materials, aesthetics and approaches, giving the traditional approach an interesting, and at times irreverent, modern twist.
Christine Meyer-Eaglestone, a UK-based artist who has been working in marquetry for more than 10 years, attributes this recent comeback in part to a renewed interest in enlivening interiors with pattern and decoration. “People are bored with minimalism and are rejoicing in surface design and pattern again,” she says.
Meyer-Eaglestone works with wood, and with dyed and painted veneers to create strong geometric patterns on pieces such as record cabinets and mirrors. Her work has a markedly modernist feel: she takes inspiration from “everything from cubism to Bauhaus and Frank Lloyd Wright”.
Designer Gareth Neal agrees that a more decorative aesthetic is coming back into vogue. “I think, for the first time in 10 years or more, that we’re open to decoration in our interiors,” he says. “It’s not about filling the whole room with flamboyant ideas – but when it’s done tastefully, it really is possible to fit pattern in a contemporary environment.”
Neal’s marquetry work challenges traditional approaches. In his Urban Picnic range, he employs inlay lines – the veneers that are traditionally used to hide the line where two pieces of marquetry meet – to constitute the entire pattern. Neal also chose to apply his marquetry to everyday objects such as a picnic bench and table-tennis bats, rather than to high-end furniture.
“I wanted to reappropriate traditional marquetry techniques,” Neal says. “The idea was to use the technique for more practical pieces. I’m very happy to use marquetry for modern objects.”
Neal’s fresh treatment of this traditional technique is part of a broader trend, says Rachel Blunstone, product design editor at innovation research consultancy Stylus, which has offices in London and New York.
“There’s a definite move towards reviving, enhancing and personalising heritage techniques,” says Blunstone. “We’re seeing designers experiment with artisanal techniques and innovative materials to develop playful ideas that reference popular culture. It’s the antithesis of the pared-back simplicity that’s been in style for the last decade or more. Instead there’s a focus on extravagant detailing and a melding of creativity, craftsmanship and technology.”
Designers such as Lucy Turner and Bethan Wood are also experimenting with traditional marquetry techniques. Turner uses formica rather than wood veneers and applies her work to everything from sideboards to kitchens. Bethan Wood, too, plays with material, using laminate veneers for her Moon Rock tables and Particle Construct range.
“I am obsessed with laminate as a material, and marquetry was a way to transform what is usually seen as a very industrial, cheap everyday surface into something more luxurious,” says Wood. “Marquetry usually uses veneers of rare and expensive woods and I use rare vintage laminates from the 1950s onwards. They’re no longer in production, so I see them as the rare woods of our time.”
Wood’s visual style – think lunar- inspired surfaces and camouflage motifs – is also strictly contemporary. “The technique has always been beautiful, but in the past the aesthetic was very traditional,” Wood says. “That’s changing now.”
Where Wood’s and Neal’s work has an urban, almost edgy feel, Violeta Galan’s straw marquetry takes a different approach. Galan’s first collection of straw marquetry, launched during last year’s London Design Festival, references the allure of the Art Deco era but with a new take on colour and form. Her Tulip cabinet is made of ebonised walnut with black and copper straw marquetry in a design that is almost psychedelic.
“I learnt the classic techniques of straw marquetry in France and then started to play with colour and shapes to find my own style,” says Galan. “Geometry is a natural language for me and I like to use strong, bold colour too. The challenge is not just aligning the shape and form, but also to enhance the natural iridescence of straw fibre. Every piece of straw is unique and you have to work with the fibre to get the best effect.”
Unlike Galan’s straw marquetry, which can only be handworked, those designers using wood and other materials can now make use of modern technology – laser-cutting, for example – to create their marquetry pieces. Many say such technological advances help to open up the process to a new tranche of designers and artists.
“Laser-cutting has been a game-changer for the industry,” says Bethan Wood. “Even in Italy where the graphics and style are still very inspired by tradition, a lot of marquetry is laser-cut now. Technology is helping bridge the gap between design and craft: it’s still put together by hand but we can work with patterns that have been drawn on computers. Some of the patterns I come up with could only be done using modern cutting techniques. It makes a difference to both the aesthetic and speed of production.”
Gareth Neal agrees, saying that “laser-cutting really opens up the possibilities of what can be done”.
For more than 30 years, furniture maker Toby Winteringham has created pieces that feature hand-cut marquetry. He also recently collaborated with his daughter Grace Winteringham, a textile designer and creative director of design firm Patternity, to create a more contemporary collection. Products such as the Shift table and Phase bureau employ both hand and laser-cutting and feature colourful, geometric motifs.
“We developed some of Grace’s textile patterns into marquetry,” says Winteringham. He describes laser-cut marquetry as “wonderfully accurate” – but also sounds a note of caution on the over-reliance on technology.
“I do use it in my work but, although almost any image can now be reproduced in marquetry, I think the technology needs treating with sensitivity or the craft will lose its integrity,” he says. “Sometimes there’s more poetry in reduction. The limited palette that natural woods offer means that in marquetry you have to be creative and find interest with texture as well as with colour, and that’s something that relies on the touch of the hand.”
Mark Garside and Kate Lennard are creative directors at Rockman & Rockman. The couple have created a range of tables with bold geometric patterns, working first in colourful acrylic, and then in wood veneers. Garside and Lennard agree with Winteringham that selecting those pieces of wood that work together must be done by hand.
“What is interesting is that all the different woods, and even different trees of the same wood, have very different personalities,” Garside points out. “We cut all our veneers by hand with a surgical knife and for the acrylics we use a mix of laser and hand cuts.”
But Rockman & Rockman – based in the trendy London neighbourhood of Shoreditch – also see a role for technology. The group is now releasing a range of marquetry cushions. The pair select various pieces of wood, looking for angles, grains and colours that work together and then scan these and lay them side by side, using software to create a marquetry-style textile pattern on screen.
“It’s not a repeat pattern of one piece of wood,” Garside explains; “it’s a combination of pieces of wood that we’ve selected to work together in the same way we select our pieces for a table. We call it digital marquetry.”