Pochoir Portfolios: E.A. Seguy’s Floréal
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2008. All Rights Reserved
While on an excursion in New York a few years ago I stopped by Leonard Fox Rare Books, eager to view fabrics designed by painters Sonia and Robert Delaunay. The Delaunays’ textiles were well worth the visit, but it was the experience afterward—leafing through the stunning portfolios of E.A. Seguy’s work—that was for me like the rich butter chocolate icing on the cake—so delicious I just couldn’t stop myself from consuming to the point of sensory overload. Considering the prolific output of this designer, I was surprised and dismayed to find that very few of the particulars of his life are a matter of public record. In fact, according to Leslie Overstreet, curator of rare books at the Smithsonian and author of Botanicals, the designer’s identity is today still largely a mystery. (Intriguingly, “he” might even have been a “she.”)
Seguy was active predominently in Paris between 1900 until the early 30s. He produced produced eleven albums of illustrations and designs including Les Fleurs et Leurs Applications Decoratives (1900), Samarkande—20 Compositions en Couleurs dans le Style Oriental (1914), Floréal (1920), Papillons (1924), Insectes (1924), Bouquets et Frondaisons (1926), Primavera—Dessins et Colori Nouveaux (1929), Suggestions (1930), and Prismes—40 Planches de Dessins et Coloris Nouveaux (1931).
The brilliance of the color scheme typical of Seguy’s designs was due to their execution in the pochoir illustration technique, essentially the hand-stenciling of watercolor or gouache colors onto a black printed design. Pochoir is said to have been developed by the Chinese in the first millennium, but pushed to aesthetic heights by the French between 1800-1920. Generally the decorative portfolios were produced as a kind of style manual for textile, wallpaper and murals, much like Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament was an earlier generation.
The natural world was Seguy’s main source of inspiration. The bug designs are probably Seguy’s best-known works, deservedly so. The artist beautifully rendered his exotic and sumptuous butterfly subjects in a level of detail befitting curiosity cabinet specimens and, yet, there is no mistaking that a superb eye for decorative pattern has directed the whole exercise.
Though the bugs were incomparably unique, it was the Floréal collection that tugged at my aesthetic heart strings. Seguy straddled the Arts Nouveau and Deco styles. In the Floréal designs, the legacy of the Art Nouveau style is right before you—the fanciful, naturally-inspired, swirling forms associated with Nouveau are in abundance. But the designs also anticipate the bodacious color schemes and geometric obsession of the Deco style. In that sense, the portfolio is a wonderful document of a decorative style in transition, a fascinating design artifact even. Leaving it at that description though wouldn’t do the collection complete justice. Simply put, Floréal is a rich and opulent luxury.
Textile Designers—A fabulous visual resource on the history of textile design.