We have chosen the most unusual inlay samples: starting with clutches decorated with marquetry and finishing with totems with Florentine mosaic.

The term inlay is used for a technique of decorating one material with another. The technique when a ‘sparring’ material is cut into the base is called intarsia, when put over in layers – veneer. There are numerous types of veneer with the most common being marquetry or the craft of applying pieces of veneer to wood. Usually wood of different type and color is used, but sometimes craftsmen go for ivory, mother-of-pearl or shells. The patterns vary. Historically the most popular motives are flower designs and landscapes. However there may be many other decorations.

Inlay technique was known in the Ancient Egypt. Mummy cases were decorated with pieces of boxwood and ironwood. Greeks learned to change the color of wood by boiling it. During the Renaissance period intarsia works of art were similar in quality to painted art. The appearance of veneer technique was determined by the industrial revolution. Craftsmen cut wood in thin sheets and decorated cheaper types of wood with them. For example, pine was used for the so-called frame that was then veneered by the Indian satinwood, olivewood, ebony, sycamore or walnut. At first those sheets were rather thick (3 mm) because they were cut by hand. In the 14th century a type of slicing machine for wood was introduces and in the 19th century mechanic saw allowed to get sheets of wood thin as paper. In fact marquetry is a high-class veneering that became the foundation for the modern technique.

Famous furniture makers made a large contribution to development of inlay and marquetry. André-Charles Boulle (17th century) substituted wood with tortoise shell and brass. A type of marquetry now bears his name (Boulle). Giuseppe Maggiolini, cabinet-maker from Milan, produced avant-garde for the 18th century pieces using wood of different colors. One piece made by him could take as many as 80 (!) different types of wood. Carlo Bugatti (Art Nouveau) was a master of ivory and painted sheepskin. Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann was the best in working with exotic types of wood.  

An eye-catching type of inlay is pietra dura or Florentine mosaic invented in the Ancient Rome and reborn in the 16th century in Florence (which explains the second name). The original name comes from the Pietra Dura workshop where the technique was first used. The design is made of pieces of semiprecious stones: ultramarine, greenstone, agate. They are used to decorate, for example, marble tabletops.

A type of marquetry is parquetry or parquet pattern when pieces are used to create a symmetric geometrical design with colors matching the frame.

There are many modern versions of inlay and marquetry. Thanks to the technical development, first of all laser cutting, craftsmen can produce almost anything. For example, combine marquetry with mirror as it was done by Swiss designers Robert and Trix Haussmann. Marquetry made of different types of wood allowed them create a misleading impression: it looks like the cabinet is covered by striped fabric.

Veneering allows to decorate uneven surfaces. Violeta Galan used colorful design resembling swallowtails to decorate a cabinet with asymmetric façade and wedging doors. She also makes very original pieces in op-art style that produce an illusion of movement.

Brazilian designers Fernando and Humberto Campana use unusual materials for veneering. Cabinets and wardrobes from the Ocean collection are inlayed with pieces of carpets, rubber and mirrors embraced by a stainless steel frame. Jan Djalu employs mother-of-pearl plaques framing them with patinated bronze.

French craftsmen are traditionally very good at these techniques. Erwan Bouillaud veneers oak wardrobes with brass and inlays of semiprecious stones. Suzanne Rippe integrates pieces of glass and colored ceramics in her blocks – stools made of cut beams. She repeats the natural lines of wood with tiles.

Another version of Florentine mosaic is used in lighting pieces made in Belgium in the 1980’s. Rubber frame is cast with resin and inlayed with dialogite mineral stone. However wood clutches with marquetry from Donna Karan are of course our favorite.

Marquetry in Art Deco style was promoted by Jean-Michel Frank who made concentric symmetric patterns with such uncommon materials as, for example, straws.

Modern artists create something similar by employing colored wood, brass or glaze.

Other posts