On the door of a former toy factory in Brooklyn, a weathered bronze plate bearing the legend "Atelier Viollet" gives barely a hint as to the goings-on inside: the painstaking creation of some of the finest Art Decoinspired furniture in the world today. Such understatement suits Jean-Paul Viollet, an elegant yet down-to-earth designer and craftsman who emigrated from France 18 years ago to pursue his dream of reviving the luxury and precision of Deco in the invigorating atmosphere of New York. But while Viollet believes that the "ideal piece of furniture is a quiet piece of furniture," the armoires, buffets, floor lamps, and daybeds that come out of his atelier are certainly no wallflowers. Finished in rare antique veneers, inlaid with hand-cut marquetry, and detailed with touches of shagreen, leather, parchment, and brass, they are, quite simply, breathtaking.
Viollet is quick to credit the Old World expertise of his staff, which includes four French guild-trained craftsmen who execute his original designs, as well as designs resulting from collaborations with architects representing such clients as Steven Spielberg, David Bowie, and David Geffen, at the meticulous pace of about 20 to 30 custom pieces per year. (Prices range from $5,000 to $100,000.) An accomplished craftsman himself, Viollet learned the ways of wood growing up in the French Alps (the Viollet family, woodworkers since 1836, specialized in staircases, roofs, and cabinetry), but went on to study plastics. The farther Viollet traveled from the family business, however, the more he found himself drawn back by the allure of wood and the work of master Art Deco designers like Jean-Michel Frank. For Viollet, sumptuousness and simplicity find harmony in Art Deco, which he calls "the essence of the twentieth century in terms of design."
"I try to give importance to the beauty of the natural material and work with very simple lines," Viollet explains as he steps into his expansive veneer sample room. As architect Alexander Gorlin points out, "he's an artist among cabinetmakers, and he knows his veneers backwards and forwards." Viollet's inventory of exotic veneers includes Indonesian Amboyna burl from the 1920s, finely dotted end-grain palmwood from French Guyana, dramatic Macassar ebony, and his personal favorite—60-year-old Cuban mahogany, perhaps the last remaining stock in America.
In Viollet's office, a bookshelf collection of vintage cigarette lighters, knives, and compacts reveals his obsession with another Art Deco material: shagreen, or stingray skin, which can be pigmented for richly pebbled detail work and translucent lampshades. Another favorite of Viollet's is lamb parchment, whose buttery warmth is ideal for wall treatments. And a cabinetful of colorful jewelry boxes done in dyed-straw marquetry by Viollet's wife, Sandrine, glows with understated luxury and museum-quality craft. These soulful little pieces are gems in themselves. "Simplicity needs extreme precision in fabrication," Viollet says, sitting at his drafting table beneath framed plans of church spires handed down by Viollets past. "Simplicity is the most complicated thing to achieve."
Atelier Viollet, 505 Driggs Ave., Brooklyn, New York; 718-782-1727.