Lison de Caunes practically brings to life the fairy-tale idea of spinning straw into gold. She takes the humble medium of straw and makes it into immensely valuable, brilliantly shining works of art.
She marvels at this magic herself — it’s amazing “to transform with the human hand a material that is really poor and raw.” Bushels of rye straw harvested in Burgundy, France, arrive at her workshop in Paris. It’s a strong and hearty straw that allows de Caunes to dye it, bend it, and cut it as she practices the ancient art of straw marquetry.
Straw marquetry is thought to have originated in the Orient. It became popular in Europe in the 17th century, but was nearly lost until de Caunes revived it.
“When I began this work, I was the only one. There was no school teaching this technique. I was really the only one,” she says.
Her daughter, Pauline Goldszal, helps tell her mother’s story in English. “She feels like she has achieved her goal in perpetuating the work and making it alive again,” she says. “Today, a lot of people want to work with straw marquetry. It has become very fashionable again, and it’s really because of her.”
De Caunes has covered whole walls and rooms in gold-hued straw. Unlike the grain of wood, which curves and varies, the grain in a strip of straw is dead-straight and mesmerizing when arranged in rows and patterns. Like rays emanating from the sun, the strips of straw have a look that is linear and geometric, yet organic. They also shimmer and shine. “Everybody thinks it’s varnish, but it’s not,” says de Caunes. “With light, it changes and vibrates.”
De Caunes has created displays for Van Cleef & Arpels in New York and several Louis Vuitton stores. She also makes luxury furniture and décor in colourful Art Deco patterns — a chest of drawers she covered in straw marquetry recently sold for about $90,000 (60,000 euros).
To her, “luxury” is precisely about the magic with which an artisan’s hand transforms a simple material into treasure. It’s also about uniqueness. “We refuse huge work,” says Goldszal. De Caunes says her work is rare, and thus precious. “I am not a factory,” she says.
What makes something “luxury” is also the value it adds to people’s lives. Straw marquetry décor “gives warmth to a room, and comfort,” Goldszal says. “It brings a lot of life, but it’s never … [overpowering] or bling-bling.”
“It changes a lot with the light, [so] depending on the time of the day, the colours are going to change,” Goldszal says. “You won’t be tired of the room in straw marquetry. You will never get bored by the straw.”
Positioning the straw to work with the light is one of the intricacies of de Caunes’ craft. Though she has an idea of how the light will play off the straw, she’s never entirely sure until she completes a piece. “Sometimes it’s not how she expected, so she has to take everything off and do it again,” says Goldszal.
It takes de Caunes about four days to complete a square-metre of marquetry. But it’s not entirely deducible to hours-per-square-metre, because small and very intricate pieces can also take her several days. She worked entirely alone for 15 years before she trained some artisans to help her, especially with big commissions. She now has a team of 15 artisans.
In 1998, she was named a Maitre d’Art (Master of Art) by France’s Ministry of Culture. De Caunes emphasizes that this title includes an obligation to pass on her skills. The ministry’s website describes this honour as distinguishing “craftsmen of passion for the singularity of their know-how, their exceptional career, and their involvement in the renewal of crafts. More than a recognition, this title is the symbol of a commitment and a willingness to transmit their skill to others.”
She learned straw marquetry from watching her grandfather do it when she was a child, then teaching herself its intricacies as an adult. Her grandfather was Andre Groult, a famous Art Deco designer. He died when she was a teenager, a loss she felt keenly, since they were very close. She was the only one among his children and grandchildren to take a great interest in his work.
Straw marquetry had all but disappeared in Europe by Groult’s time. He used it in the décor he designed, helping revive it. After his death, the art waned again until de Caunes picked up where he left off. She started her work with straw by restoring his pieces as well as those made centuries before.
The technique has not changed. De Caunes dries and tints the straw, then splits and opens each stem and flattens it. She glues the matte side onto wood, metal, or glass, with the shiny side facing out.
Her workshop is quiet. Straw marquetry requires no power tools nor the banging and clanging of manual tools. “She can enter a very calming and relaxing state when she works,” says Goldszal. “It’s a meditating state.”
“It’s zen,” says de Caunes.