Straw didn’t break the back of this sydney artist and designer – instead, it has guided him through a challenging and fulfilling career.

THE HISTORY OF STRAW MARQUETRY reads like a tale of artisanal rags-to-riches. Wood marquetry’s poor cousin, the labour-intensive practice of flattening out straw to create inlays and veneers was a pastime deemed acceptable for cloistered nuns in 17th-century France as well as prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars, who used straw to decorate small boxes.

Then, in the 1920s, furniture designers André Groult, Jean Royère and Jean-Michel Frank reinvigorated the art to dazzling effect, focusing on broad surface decorations such as folding screens, doors and cabinets (Frank’s apartment on rue de Verneuil was covered entirely in straw marquetry). Most recently there’s Lison de Caunes, Groult’s granddaughter, who rescued straw marquetry from the precipice of oblivion in the 1970s and now counts Jacques Grange and Peter Marino as clients — the latter having commissioned her for a series of Louis Vuitton boutiques as well as Guerlain’s flagship store on the Champs-Elysées.

Despite its renaissance in Europe and the US, straw marquetry remains relatively unknown in Australia, until now. Arthur Seigneur, a one-time disciple of de Caunes, moved to Sydney in 2015, excited to introduce his art to the Australian market.

The son of a French engraver — Seigneur Sr and de Caunes were both founding members of Les Grands Ateliers de France — Seigneur grew up surrounded by artists and artisans. Studying furniture design and cabinetmaking at La Bonne Graine in Paris and apprenticing with harpsichord maker Reinhard von Nagel and cabinetmaker-restaurateur Michel Germond, he admits to having been lucky. “I’ve worked with such talented people, experts in their field,” he says. “Working with Germond was like travelling through time, to see the concept of the best furniture and how it was constructed.”

Seigneur taught himself straw marquetry after moving to New Orleans in 2012 in an attempt to impress his then cabinetmaker boss. “I had to rely on what I’d seen with my father, in the shops that sold Art Deco furniture in Paris,” he says. “And of course I called Lison.” Drawing on the energy of the city’s jazz festival, his first piece was a three-panelled screen depicting Ray Charles, with a more traditional, geometric pattern on the reverse. It was a massively ambitious undertaking in which he worked around the clock for eight weeks, and marked a career turning point. He returned to Paris in 2013 and honed his skills in de Caunes’ Left Bank atelier. “Working with Lison and having her share her passion and knowledge was a great privilege.”

Seigneur speaks of straw with just as much passion. “It’s surprising in so many ways, in its strength and its beauty,” he says. “Each blade of straw is unique and the marquetry is done entirely by hand.” I half listen, drawn to the kaleidoscopic play of colour and reflection around Seigneur’s Alexandria studio. “And then there’s the light,” he says. “It shines in a way nothing else can shine.”