A floral motif Art Nouveau cabinet by French decorator Louis Majorelle. A Rococo commode with bronze mounting. A walnut Italian vanity with a fruitwood mosaic. The styles vary, but the artistry is the same: Marquetry and parquetry are luxurious art forms that add great value and beauty to furnishings. These decorative veneers—thin layers of fine wood applied to casegoods like chests, drawers or cabinets—have long been a favorite design element of craftsmen.
Parquetry uses strips of wood to create a mosaic of geometric shapes, such as stars, squares, or herringbone on furniture and flooring. Contrasting materials, such as rosewood, ebony, oak, or pine are often used to create the basis of a pattern.
Marquetry is veneer laid out in a pattern and applied to a furnishing’s surface to create a decorative or pictorial pattern, such as people, animals, or religious motifs. (Think muses, wreaths, trophies.) These veneers are typically made of a material such as wood, shell, ivory, brass, pewter, or metal.
Don’t fall for this misconception.
Marquetry and parquetry are often confused or used interchangeably with an inlay, which refers to the process of cutting out a section of material and insetting a piece of another material like brass, shell or wood. However, marquetry and parquetry are veneers, or pieces laid over a flat surface. These veneers are typically featured on bookshelves, bedside tables, or cabinets for decoration.
Where it started:
While they can be traced to cultures as far back as ancient Egypt (and to 16th century Antwerp more recently), marquetry and parquetry became more and more refined though the centuries until they reached an artistic pinnacle in 18th century Italy, when they became true art forms that enhanced the beauty and value of a piece of furniture. An improvement on intarsia (a form of wood inlaying similar to marquetry that ran up to the late Renaissance), these veneers became a more efficient way to create a more sophisticated look as the wealthy began investing money in elaborate furnishings that were, in themselves, works of art.
Louis XIV & beyond
During the reign of Louis XIV of France (1661-1715), Baroque workshops commissioned hand-cut, hand-glued, hand-stained marquetry and parquetry. In the late 1700s, English designers such as Chippendale followed suit, incorporating marquetry on custom pieces for the aristocracy. By the 18th century, royals and members of the upper class throughout Europe commissioned marquetry and parquetry pieces of exotic woods like rosewood from India or Birdseye Maple from the Americas.
Giuseppe Maggiolini (1738-1814) was a premiere Italian marquetry-maker. Eighteenth-century commodes are often called “Maggiolini,” which has become a generic term for extensive, elaborate Neoclassical marquetry, though an authentic Maggiolini — characterized by its expressive inlaid wood top and range of exotic woods — is a rare, and highly expensive, find.
After the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century popularized saws and other mechanical techniques, machines began to cut marquetry and parquetry. However, collectors still covet pieces that display veneers created by high-end contemporary artists using traditional techniques.
Special thanks to Buzz Kaplan, executive director of C. Mariani Antiques, Restoration & Custom in San Francisco; Paul Schürch of Schürch Woodwork; A Marquetry Odyssey and Master Techniques of Marquetry by Silas Kopf.