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The Story of Nouailhac Paris (speech by monsieur Gilles Nouailhac, 2010)

A meeting with Monsieur Grana

It was during the middle of the 1980s that, wishing to become a manufacturer of highest-quality products, I started to search for a company to take over.

When I made contact with Monsieur Grana, after coming across a small advertisement about the closing of a business, I was seduced by the rigor and demanding approach with which he managed his atelier.  He set up as an upholsterer in 1956, and as the business developed he then converted it to a company in 1971. When I met him he had a small but talented team of six men.

I was really dumbfounded by the precision and efficiency of his upholsterers. All of them worked with him for several years at least and all had learned precisely the right touch. For example, it was astonishing to witness the speed with which they put the row of finishing nails into the chairs…yet without ever giving the impression of hurrying at all. But in placing every nail in precisely the right spot where it should be, without ever needing to return to it, always with a precision of millimeters.

Monsieur Grana was known in his trade and by his customers as the keeper of a tradition: A chair in the Empire style must be covered in fabric of the same style, ideally with “des abeilles”  (the typical bee pattern from the Empire era), and nothing could ever equal a “point de Hongrie”(a traditional pattern on fabrics like a chevron pattern) on a Louis XIII chair.

french fabric with the Empire era bee pattern called abeilles

“Abeilles” fabric pattern


fabric "point de hongrie"

“point de Hongrie” fabric pattern

Regarding the question of using “mousse” (foam filling for the seat) Monsieur Grana liked to joke that he gladly uses foam to shave – but under no circumstances can it be used in his ateliers!

Taking over the company

I took over his company in 1988 with enormous enthusiasm, seduced as much by the team as by the splendid products they created. And I was certain there would be a lot of work but also a lot of potential to bring them out of this aging concept of offering only the classical French seating designs, such as Louis XV, Louis XVI, Empire etc.

Provenance of Nouailhac beech woods

Before that, though, I had a lot to learn. The wood to start with: what kind of wood makes a high-quality armchair or sofa?

I made several trips into the Vosges Mountains to enable the woodcutters we worked with to explain to me fully the nature of the trees and the wood. I grasped quickly that the composition of the soil and the climate make the Haute-Marne region in northeastern France one of the best terroirs for the beech wood we use in our chairs and sofas.

 

Panoramic view of beech forests in Les Vosges mountains in France

Beech forests in the Vosges mountains, France

 

I learned why it’s better to buy standing wood before it is felled; I took part in examining the trees before they were felled for our wood supply, to check the quality of the trees. This wood that becomes a long-term part of our heritage – which took 80-100 years to become ready.

I learned how to determine that a tree not have too large a ‘heartwood’ core, which then is not usable. And all about the felling, which occurs from September through February, when the sap is draining or is already at the foot of the tree. The cutting into boards of various thicknesses. Naturally, we cut the thickest pieces up to 140 mm from the most beautiful trees.

It’s far better to permit the wood to air dry rather than cure in a drying chamber, in order not to hurry the wood. You can count on 10-15 mm of each side of a board drying in one year; thus, it takes 5-6 years for a 140 mm piece to dry fully before we will use it: giving needed time is essential.

Craft work in the ateliers

Finally the board can be brought into our atelier to begin to be transformed into a chair or sofa, after passing through all of the wood craft trades involved: tracer (“traceur”), cutter (“debiteur”), shaper (” toupilleur”) turner (“tourneur”), carpenter (“menuisier”). And the most spectacular of all without doubt with his incredible rack of gouges of all sizes: the wood sculptor. The sculpting of some chairs represents more than a whole day of work and considerably more if are added rais-de-coeur ( a traditional sculpted/carved pattern) and pearls.

 

2 woodworkers carving armchairs Nouailhac Paris

Wood sculpteurs, Nouailhac Paris

 

Of course, there is no chance that we would use stamped or pressed sculptures here in our work.

Finally, the carpenter/joiners take the chair in their hands to fasten/bond parts, to adjust it, to correct a curve and to sand it before it leaves the carpentry shop.

So there it is in our ateliers, the armchair or sofa. We ensure the balance of its shape, the harmony of its proportions, the fineness of the milling. It has the charm of these models of French chairs that are recognized throughout the world – and we Nouailhac have the possibility to be the furnisher.

 

a stack of finished beechwood armchair frames awating patinas and upholstery Nouailhac Paris

Completed beech armchair frames awaiting patina and upholstery, Nouailhac Paris

 

Wood patinas and upholstery

And now to the patineurs (the craftsmen who will apply the patina, the wood finish), and the upholsterers, to give the chair its personality and also bring to it some fantasy as well – absolutely not denying the skilled traditions that we have fortunately inherited. And why not: also giving rein to a bit of impertinence as well in the finishing style of the piece?  I have realized as a result of my years doing this along with my attempts with colors, dressing, finishing details, the chairs and sofas happily carry off all of these artistic touches.

preparation of patina mixture to apply to beechwood armchair Nouailhac Paris

Patina preparation, Nouailhac Paris

 

And the creativity of the fabric houses in recent years has also enabled us to create pieces that are original and even spectacular. The same armchair, magnificent with a patin of finished with a gold leaf application gold flake and covered with a silk damask, is equally splendid finished with a bright laquer color and upholstered in a fluorescent vinyl fabric, or with an old wood finish and covered with raw linen. The same piece can be sober and discrete, or show off its beautiful classicism, or instead insert a brilliant spot of color and life into a contemporary interior.

But we will always be faithful to the savoir-faire that has been handed down to us: the upholstery of the seats begins with tightly crisscrossed jute straps ; then is followed by the placement of the springs that are fixed with the aid of rope; the placement of the canvas; the laying of the coarse fiber layer; the stuffing; the stitching; the cotton wadding; the white canvas and finally the installation of the fabric; the finishing elements; and last the jaconas (the canvas under the seat to hide the jute straps).

skilled manual upholstery work on armchair Nouailhac Paris

Upholstery craftwork, Nouailhac Paris

In fact ten stages, each executed with the utmost care, to accomplish the upholstery of a single piece. It is obvious that it means much more time and technique than if we installed elastic strapping and foam or a foam pad. But the lifetime of such piece is incomparably greater. And one can also be seated on a chair made in this skilled traditional way for hours with squirming!

What is true for the upholstery is also the case with our wood patinas: all are created entirely by hand, the edges are worn manually; after each stage we build up the permanent layer by covering in a varnish that is then jexé (this is the last “polishing” touch); the necessary drying times are adhered to. Just as it used to be done..

Maintaining the historical traditions and savoir-faire

I recently reread an old French book on the craft of upholstery, and there I again came across this magical phrase: “The upholsterers have up to now formed a kind of aristocracy of the craft trades; it is important for future generations to maintain and even improve their craft further“.

Baroque French craftsmen upholstering two armchairs from an old French book

Baroque upholsterers in France

 

It is precisely this that I have tried to do: to preserve and to pass on this savoir-faire, and to add to it a small personal touch of my own as well.

Although, unfortunately, I no longer am a part of the future generation..

GN, mai 2010

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