Interview: Ben St George
“As a kid my head was always in the clouds. I hated school and just wanted to be creative and work with my hands. I was always asking questions, making music, looking at architecture, furniture and objects trying to understand how they were made.”
Of the many disciplines that go into furniture-making, few are as specialised, or as sought after as Arthur Seigneur’s. The young, Sydney based designer has been garnering serious attention for his modern reinterpretation of the rare and centuries-old art of straw marquetry. Straw marquetry, a technique of using straw to create a lustrous veneer, was born out of Europe in the 17th Century. It fell out of favour for hundreds of years, before being revived and reinvented by designers like Jean-Michel Franck and André Groult during the art deco period. It is now seeing something of a second revival, spearheaded by young designers like Seigneur, who have found new appreciation for the art. “If you were comparing ebony and straw” says Seigneur, “straw doesn’t really sound so appealing, but with a lot of patience and creativity it can be turned into something truly beautiful and timeless… I could just look at a finished work for hours, appreciating the light travelling through it.”
Born in 1990 and raised in Paris, Seigneur’s father was a master engraver, and member of “Les Grands Ateliers de France” - an association of France’s finest artisans. A curious child, Seigneur spent much of his youth in his father’s shop, and those of his father’s compatriots. “As a kid my head was always in the clouds. I hated school and just wanted to be creative and work with my hands. I was always asking questions, making music, looking at architecture, furniture and objects trying to understand how they were made.”
At fifteen, Seigneur left school to pursue a woodworking apprenticeship, learning cabinetmaking, joinery, marquetry and even harpsichord-making. “Harpsichord-making is a good example of all the possibilities that woodworking has” says Seigneur. “I learned the art of harpsichord-making from my first master, Reinhardt von Nagel. From the beginning to the end of the process, every step uses different woodworking techniques”. After spending the next few years completing his apprenticeship, as well as travelling and working abroad, Seigneur returned to Paris. Here he continued to hone his straw marquetry skills with renowned marquetrist Lison de Caune, before setting his sights on Sydney.
Seigneur knew from an young age that he wanted to something creative, something practical. The decision to work with wood came to him early. “Wood is a really warm and noble material to work with, and there is so much you can do with it, but what attracted me the most in woodworking was veneer work. I was always fascinated by marquetry and the way that the wood grain gives so much depth - it’s almost like painting, but with wood.”
To Seigneur, Sydney seemed like a natural choice of location to start his business, having fallen in love with Sydney after watching the 2000 Olympic Games as a child. “I had always been fascinated by Sydney” Seigneur says, “but the process was sped up when I fell deeply in love with my Australian partner in crime, Carla. We decided to come to Sydney to set up my business as I would be the only one in Australia to do [straw marquetry], among only a handful of people in the world.” Seigneur’s work still uses essentially the same, manual techniques that have been employed for hundreds of years. “The process is done entirely by hand, only using hand tools. No machines are involved in the process. Each blade of straw has is own finish on it which makes it shine like no other lacquer in the world!”
Seigneur says that while marquetry’s profile definitely has room to grow, more and more designers and decorators are looking to harness its unique aesthetic and myriad applications. “I think the market in Australia - and the rest of the world - is not fully aware of the art of straw marquetry just yet” says Seigneur. “Even if it is having a revival, it has only been brought back over the past three decades.” However, being both highly skilled and sharply focussed on straw marquetry specifically has made Seigneur’s work incredibly sought-after. “Being the only one in Australia doing it, I found people really receptive to my work, and interest around straw has started to grow. After a year of setting up shop and trying to build that interest, I’ve now started to be commissioned by leading design companies and designers all over Australia.” Seigneur says that he enjoys doing comission work, but would someday love to be given free reign over a space, to truly flex his design muscles. “A dream project for me would be having a client say ‘here is the key to my apartment, it’s up to you!’ The possibilities with colour and pattern are endless and there is still so much to discover - that’s what I love about it.”