Meet ‘a woman of straw’ – in the best possible way. Delphine Robins is one of 120 people around the world skilled at marquetry. The French-born artisan works in an attic workroom stocked full of rye and makes everything from trays and panels to jewellery boxes and bookcases from the resilient reeds. Straw marquetry appeared in the 17th century and subsequently became very popular among creators of the Art Deco period, one of the most iconic movements in the history of modern art, writes Sue Wilkinson.
Delphine is self-taught. She was inspired by a television documentary she stum-bled across seven years ago.“I had just put my son to bed, zapped on the television and this documentary was on a channel I did not know.“I sat down and said ‘Wow!’ I watched it on repeat the next day, searched the internet for information, and off I went,” she said.“It really is a passion and it has never left me.”From being young Delphine always wanted to create something with her hands but did not know what field she wanted to work in. She was working at a firm of lawyers in the South of France when she had Tho-mas, now nine, and his birth sparked a change of direction. “I worked in upholstery for two years but there was something still missing until I discovered marquetry,” she said.“I was looking for something that would not be just my job but fun every day. I wanted to get up in the morning and say ‘Yes! Another day’. If you love your job, life is good,” she said. Marquetry is a craft which takes time, patience, and precision to perfect – and requires few materials and utensils.
Rye, supplied by three outlets – in the Czech Republic, France and the USA – a bone knife, scalpel, a specialist hammer to flatten the reed, pencil, glue, scissors, a ruler, panels … and, in Delphine’s case, copious amounts of coffee. The straw can be dyed using an array of natural pigments to transform the natural golden hues into a spectrum of shades, ready for the creative process. Straw’s natural colour includes diffused and delicate shades that lend themselves to the overall sheen and lustre that appear in Delphine’s refined designs.
Straw marquetry is admired by the French haute couture canon including Guerlain, Boucheron and Cartier. It adorns furniture and statement pieces in the most exclusive hotels; and the stunning, luxurious designs can be found in royal palaces, exclusive private houses and stately homes. Other locations include on private yachts, jets and corporate offices of the globe’s most successful businesses, “I use the traditional methods of transforming straw into an astonishing, shiny and luminous mate-rial, like a ribbon to create exceptional furniture and objects,” she said.“Straw is a natural raw material and creates pure patterns for interior decorators and individuals.
The resulting designs are amazing in their variety, beauty and inventiveness.”Each straw has to be dealt with one by one; flattened one by one, cut one by one and glued edge to edge one by one. If the edges are not straight or the straws are overlaid they will not stick together. “It is a very precise art and everything has to be smooth and perfect,” she said. “The resulting work has an incredible lustre, which changes as you move.“In fact, the designs look like they are moving. The movement is almost like a ballet, it is so subtle, pure yet captivating.”
The finished articles last for at least 100 years. Delphine works on her own creations and commissions from across the world in the top floor of her home in Scarborough. She and her husband Dav-id, a retired English teacher, moved to the coast from the South of France three years ago. They were living in the port town of Sete in the South of France.“It was too hot. David wanted to move back to his home country, somewhere in the region near York.”They stayed in York and Harrogate but decided on Scarborough as it was where David used to come on holiday as a child.“I love it here. It’s green, there are leaves on the trees and there is grass. The South of France is like a desert. I trusted David to find us a lovely place to live.”
They met, again randomly, at a beach restaurant in Sete. David was working as an English teacher. “I was waiting for a colleague who never showed up. He was waiting for who I don’t know who and don’t want to know, but he or she didn’t turn up,” she said laughing. “I heard him talking perfect French on the phone, thought he is handsome and we got talking and we are still talking,” she said.As a child, she spent time in the US where her father worked for a time, and can distinguish English accents from German and American. They have been married for 11 years. “David wanted to retire and said he would take care of our son and do the shopping … it was perfect,” she said.
Each day Delphine works from 9 am to 4 pm, breaks off to spend time with her son, and then works for another few hours. “Marquetry takes so much concentration that after a while you can make mistakes and mistakes are not allowed.”Delphine works on her own creations and also on commissions from home designers.“I work in close collaboration with craftsmen cabinet-makers. Straw inlay work can be applied to panels, furniture, lamps, picture frames, accessories, and many other media, transforming them into elegant, chic, and timeless art objects,” she said. In her workshop, there is a picture of the Eiffel Tower, trays and inlaid panels, and the makings of a bookcase – a commission that will take three months to complete. Each piece is created in the same way: first, a photograph/picture, pencil out-line, assembling the straws by colour, and then she starts.
Her work is sold via her website and an Anglo/French luxury design site. For bespoke pieces, she quotes a price, asks for 25 per cent to buy the materials, another 25 per cent once the quotation is signed, and full payment on completion of the project. The 120-strong marque-try community is collaborative and competitive at the same time, she said. They share advice but do not give away their design secrets. Delphine now wants to share her passion with others who want to learn the art of marquetry. She will be hosting workshops at Wood-end in The Crescent, Scar-borough, each Monday from June 21 to July 19. There will be two sessions: from 9.30 am to 12.30 pm and from 1.30 pm to 4.30 pm. Registration is by telephone: 07548 798023 or email email@example.com Delphine at work splitting and flattening the straws.
Photos by Richard Ponter