Marble muscles ripple—the stone carver’s feat charismatic in its unselfconsciousness. Crystals dangle, their effervescence gleaming for centuries as blown baubles from the past. Mother-of-pearl inlay sparks within its black lacquered construct as light strikes it, and the arcing wood frame of a chair is relieved of its layers of paint to expose the smoothed secrets of its origins. Walls holding panels that masquerade as boiserie playfully unfurl their fanciful shapes. Crumbling shells, ropes, palm fronds, and angel’s wings embrace their service of being the foundations for new symbols of finery, unapologetic about their decline. Filigree, floral eloquence, and mythic motifs abound in carved artifacts from a much more elegant time.
This visual richness exists between the covers of a book titled Ateliers of Europe: An Atlas of Decorative Arts Workshops, recently published by Prestel. The gorgeous book was written by John Whelan, a specialist in heritage design and creative direction; and photographed by Oskar Proctor, a talented alchemist who brought the stories of the European workshops to life. It is an atlas in the sense that it maps ateliers in Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, though the lushness through which their stories are told eclipse the meaning of mere catalog. Each workroom is allowed to present its personality in silent unadornment—the glaze splattered kiln, the industrial cabinets filled with historical drawings, and the behemoth pipes pocked with wear and tear are resolute in the role they play in preservation.
Artifacts leaning rows deep upon the other represent a vast history of decorative refinement leading us back to a romantic era that will never thrive exactly as it once did, though it would launch us into ornamented perfection if we would only let it. While many of the French ateliers are in and around Paris, two are in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, one in Bordeaux and one in Dax. I am working on a novel that begins in this area of France, which is rich in artisanship and history. The research is bringing me a fascinating peek into the past from the ninth century forward, the visual stimulation I have found in Whelan’s book deepening my desire to glean as much sensory input as I can find.
Along with the French studios that expertly manipulate lacquer, casting, decorative paint, pewter, plaster, ceramics, wood paneling, wrought iron, and silver; Austrian ateliers specialize in glass and lighting. English workshops concentrate on ceramics and pewter, and create fireplace surrounds and lighting. German studios produce lime-wash paint and porcelain. The astounding array of ateliers in Italy bring to market fabric, wooden ornaments, luxuriously bound books, plaster, silk, lighting, glass, mosaics, and cast metal. In Spain, stained glass and gold are explored in workshops. And in Switzerland, metal furniture is produced. It is fitting that the bookbinding studio of Conti Borbone should be featured since it was the early presses during the Renaissance in Italy that birthed the book trade. I saw a number of the specimens that were produced so far in the past during a trip to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where I took in an exhibition dedicated to history’s original bookmakers.
Flipping through the pages of Ateliers in Europe that are dedicated to Conti Borbone, I felt an irresistible urge to run my hand over the marbled papers stacked on shelves, the colorings echoing those ornamenting the inside covers of the centuries-old books. In France, Fer Emeraude in Bordeaux has a raw and muscular atmosphere with its fiery furnace and giant anvils on which wrought iron is beaten into submission. Within this grating backdrop, delicately curved creations are born. In Barcelona, it’s glass that gleams in J.M. Vitralls Bonet’s studios. Ornamental panes that have seen better days take us back to a time when the spires of the great cathedrals first pointed toward the heavens. Shelves are filled with colorful specimens of glass that bide their time, awaiting the moment they will become stand-ins for damaged predecessors.
Whelan experienced each of these exceptional places, describing his journey in his introduction. “Nearly every atelier I visited had exceptional natural light but, most importantly, there was an authenticity to the spaces that appeared to be the result of prioritizing function over style,” he wrote. “Viewed through a contemporary lens, it is hard not to see this as stylish, particularly when we are now used to seeing unpretentious workwear garments being hailed as high fashion. This reading, however, risks trivializing the true value of these places. In reality, their atmosphere is far more potent and poignant than their unstudied ‘cool.’ With lights off, the air hangs heavy with dust particles that are caught suspended in shafts of light. There are layers and layers of scratches and scores on walls and workbenches that read like unearthed palimpsest, suggesting a divine mystery without ever revealing it.”
The mystery about which he writes is only possible because craftspeople have dedicated their lives to creating sumptuous wares with roots in centuries-old techniques. Each time I bring something into my home that bears the mark of a talented maker, it has a profound effect on everything else around it; and has an equally powerful influence on me.
Ateliers of Europe © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns. She received a review copy of this book from the publisher but her comments were in no way swayed by this fact and are authentically true.