NEW YORK — In what is surely testimony to seeing-is-believing, Maison Lesage has set up a temporary workshop at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum here.
Over a series of special events in the next few days, Lesage designers will be demonstrating the French hand-embroidery for design enthusiasts and students. Monday morning’s Design by Hand event was part of a series of programs made possible through an ongoing partnership between the museum and Van Cleef & Arpels, that touts the craftsmanship, innovations and merits of pioneering design organizations.
During a Monday morning media event, Lesage artistic director Hubert Barrère offered a little history. In 1924, Albert and Marie Louise Lesage acquired the Michonet embroidery workshop (which had its origins in 1858). Their son, François, took over the reins of the company in 1949. Lesage started its school for embroidery in 1992 and it became part of Maison Chanel in 2002. Having served as Lesage’s artistic director since 2012, Barrère said he joined the company after the House of Chanel and François Lesage spoke with him about “the future of Lesage and the importance of transmitting its invaluable know-how.”
Lesage works on eight collections annually. Asked how long each one takes to complete, he smiled knowingly and said, “That’s a good question.” Typically, it would be four weeks, though that is not always the case, he said.
With more than 210,000 design objects in its collection, the museum is a proponent of “the idea of stopping, not taking your devices out to take pictures, but really appreciating the objects,” according to Cooper Hewitt director Caroline Baumann. “We encourage visitors to come and really look at the design objects. Pausing and really taking time in one’s day to really, really do that is critical to the mission that we deliver,” she said.
In keeping with that mind-set, about a dozen members of the media sat at looms shipped from the atelier in France to embroider bandanas. Thankfully, Lesage designers offered guidance during the hands-on workshop. Baumann mentioned how MoMA executives recently requested to borrow some of the 10 bandannas from the Cooper Hewitt’s textiles collection for a big show that is still a few years out. “So I think this is right on. You’re looking at something that is historic and a historic technique, but something that was worn in the modern age and is worn today,” she said.
Barrère said, “It’s important to see the embroiderers, and that there is a human part behind-the-scenes. The girls are young and are very motivated to do this kind of handwork. In France, there are a lot of young people who want to study embroidery at our school in Paris. After three years in school, they have to work in a house like Lesage for at least five years to become a good embroiderer to be able to work with an amazing house like Chanel.”
Lesage currently employs 70 people in Paris. Barrère said of how the sector is changing, “Today people have the liberty to choose their own profession. The young people coming into the company are so passionate to join. That is very important. We are not in huge demand but we have very good demand. And it’s enough, because the embroidery market is not a very big market. It’s special.”