All about straw marquetry, with Simon Orrell

Simon Orrell designs furniture and objects made in unusual and exotic materials, such as shagreen and parchment, mica, gold & silver leaf, and mother of pearl. More recently he has revived the traditional  technique of straw marquetry and given it a luxurious new look.

Q. What is straw marquetry?
A.  It’s an intricately patterned finish that’s handmade by artisans, which at face value sounds a bit rustic – its raw materials are pressed strips of straw – but in the right hands can be transformed into surfaces with a sumptuous lustre. The straw can be natural or dyed in vibrant hues – as on our Cellini bedside table – so can provide a customised look.

Simon Orrell, Cellini marquetry table close up

Q. Where did it originate?
A. In 18th century England and France where you saw it on small items of furniture – such as a gaming box. It was popular in the Art Deco period; the sunburst motif of that era looked particularly spectacular created in straw marquetry.

Q. How is it applied to furniture?
A. It’s a painstaking and time-consuming process – a square foot is about a day’s work and that doesn’t include the drying. We source ready-dyed straw, but because of colour variations we’ll sort it carefully according to width and colour, even discarding some of it. Using a scalpel, we split the straw, then flatten it. It is then glued down to the surface into a pattern that has alredy been pencilled out and carefully trimmed to fit. If it’s a piece of furniture that will get a lot of use – such as a table – it’ll need a coat of polyester lacquer, otherwise a wax finish.

Simon Orrell marquetry jewellery box

Q. Why did you decide to introduce this finish into your work?
A. It’s a challenge to work with new materials and since we’re already sought out for what we can do with other ‘difficult’ materials it’s a technique we are able to do very well. Our clients look to us to offer the next new thing and especially exquisite high-end effects. Straw marquetry is exciting for us because we can take it further than previously seen; the potential for vivid contemporary pieces is great. Simon Orrell, Avila marquetry cabinet

Q. Other materials you have used include shagreen, parchment, mica and shellwork. How do you decide to integrate these finishes into new designs?
A. All of our finishes work very well on furniture – even the shapeliest of pieces – because we’ve spent years perfecting their application and we also apply them to wall surfaces and other architectural elements. We generally work very closely with the client to achieve the right look; in a Knightsbridge project for Rients Bruinsma we created parchment panels that are key to his classic contemporary design scheme. Some materials are more difficult than others. Mica is tricky because it’s so fragile, but we’ll use it for surfaces that get little or no traffic such as mirrors and cabinet door fronts and if it’s for a desktop, then we’ll embed it in resin, making it more robust.

Simon Orrell parchment panels

Q. Who commissions your furniture; are all orders placed through interior designers?>
Many of our clients are
interior designers because it’s these people – as professionals in a demanding industry – who are pushing the boundaries. We can offer them a wide range of materials that not many other people do. In a Marylebone apartment, Douglas Mackie chose our tiger penshell to add opulence to his design for a pair of bedside tables.

Simon Orrell - tiger penshell

Q. What are your plans for designs of the future?
A. We’ll be creating more luxury surfaces – such as our Hudson coffee table in Mica – that we showed at Decorex and developing more contemporary finishes, too. We love experimenting and have just produced our popular drum table in selenite. We also have some fun ideas for scagliola, salmon skin, cowrie shell and a few other bonkers things, too.

The company recently launched the Simon Orrell Atelier diffusion range of furniture, lighting, accessories and gifts, all of which can be ordered more readily than the bespoke items, yet are made with the same exacting standards.

By appointment: Unit 12, Townmead Business Centre, William Morris Way, London, SW6 2SZ
Tel: 00 44 (0)20-7371 9339 Tel: 00 44 (0)7830-080681



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