Just like the grapes grown in Champagne, rye straw is a humble, natural material which, through pure patience and consummate skill, can be transformed into a luxury item. Lison de Caunes, Maître d’Art in straw marquetry, is the most eminent specialist in her field. Portrait of the artist.
“ I was born on a bed of straw!” From Lison de Caunes, this can be taken quite literally. As a child, she would spend hours on end in her grandfather’s workshop, none other than André Groult, the Art Deco designer, and one of the greatest names in straw marquetry. This detailed decorative technique involves working flattened slithers of straw meticulously pieced together in intricate panels, which can feature in furnishings and home accessories. In the 70s, when Lison de Caunes was of an age to ponder her future, it was of interest to very few. “I had studied bookbinding, gilding and cabinetry. I began to focus on pieces crafted by my grandfather and it was only by unravelling the creative process that I mastered straw marquetry”. Lison de Caunes never looked back. Already skilled in furniture restoration, her eyes were opened to the vast creative landscape laid bare by this technique. An incidental table, a panel on a sofa… her productivity gathered pace. Until the straw marquetry virtuoso received her first commission for decorative panelling. “From this point on, I worked exclusively on custom commissions,” she explains. The Guerlain perfumerie on the Champs-Elysées, the Louis Vuitton concept store in Place Vendôme, and the luxury Four Seasons New York are among the prestigious settings that play host to Lison de Caune’s creative masterpieces.
Artist or artisan? – that is the question. When asked how she would categorise her craft, the Maître d’Art in straw marquetry struggles to answer. “On the one hand, I feel very much part of the great tradition of French craftsmanship. I often work with glass and metal workers, engraving and embossing artists, and experts in decorative finishings such as gilt and lacquer, who all have a unique skill. While on the other, I use natural, rustic materials and transform them into refined, unique pieces, which is the accepted definition of artistic creation.” One thing is certain, Lison de Caune’s ardent passion for her craft has not waned with the passage of time. And it is this passion that drives the meticulous patience and application required to create her pieces using the same hand tools used for centuries – essentially a ruler, scalpel and plioir to fold the straw. And it is also her source of inspiration, encouraging her to experiment by combining rye straw with complementary materials likely to bring a contemporary twist, such as gold leaf, stoneware, glass or mother of pearl.
For the creative artist, innovation goes hand in hand with the understanding that ‘beauty’ is the ultimate goal. “Had I been asked to make something unsightly, I would have flatly refused. Aesthetic reward is paramount. For the very best results, you have to be able to anticipate the pleasure the client will experience on discovering the finished piece.”
If Lison de Caunes has single-handedly resurrected this age-old art form, she is by no means alone in her quest. For among other practitioners of straw marquetry, many have learnt their craft at her side. Her workshop now boasts as many as ten fellow artists who continue to perpetuate her approach to her craft. In this space tucked away in the heart of Paris’ 6th arondissement, an atmosphere of studious concentration, if not contemplation, pervades.
“At the prospect of creating a 100m2 dressing room crafted entirely from flattened straw, which was the brief, you have to remain quite Zen”, she smiles. “You never tire if you focus on the endless variations of motif and colour. Living proof is our workshop manager, who has worked here for twenty-four years!” And looking round us, this unstinting loyalty speaks volumes. Original creations executed with absolute finesse, vibrant colours, not forgetting the exquisite manner in which the straw reflects the light – which is down to the silica content in the soil, absorbed by the straw as it grows, acting like a varnish. In Lison de Caune’s workshop, a hymn to beauty releases its melody. Its enchanted charm is utterly irresistible…
“I use natural, rustic materials and transform them into refined, unique pieces.”
Lison de Caunes sources her rye straw in Burgundy’s prestigious Côte-d’Or; the same straw used to cane chairs. Her preferred cereal farmer cultivates the straw following traditional methods, allowing the stems to reach optimum height for marquetry, around two metres. To boost the stems’ resistence, harvesting takes place before the grains are allowed to ripen.
The workshop then receives the straw in sheaths, coloured by soaking in dye baths. The straw is easy to store and requires no specific instructions given its relative resistence to humidity and temperature fluctuations.