History of Marquetry

In the beginning

Marquetry, or wood inlay, was first practiced in Egypt in the 10th century B.C. The Egyptians used bronze adzes and axes to make their wood veneers in a very time-consuming process, producing pieces that were owned mainly by the ruling class. Some examples of this work were found in the temple of Pharaoh King Tutankhamon. The throne, chests, and most other furniture were covered with inlays of wood, gold, ivory, tiles and precious stones.

During the Dark Ages, marquetry fell out of favor and was practiced in only a few workshops in Italy. During the 14th and 15th centuries, schools of marquetry were set up in Italy to promote the practice, using chisels to shape thick pieces of veneer. This technique was termed “Intarsia Geometrica” and it was used to cover entire surfaces with pieces of veneer and other natural materials. Over time this form of woodworking spread to the rest of Europe, where the invention of the jigsaw blade by an anonymous German clockmaker near the end of the 16th century made the cutting of thinner veneers possible. It also speeded up the design cutting time by allowing the simultaneous cutting of stacked sheets of veneer.


The marquetry technique sometimes referred to as “By Superposition” was developed by Germans in the 17th century, and perfected by a Frenchman, Andre-Charles Boulle (1642 to 1732), a cabinetmaker to King Louis XIV. It was known as “Tarsia a Incastro,” or more commonly the “Boulle Technique,” and proved to be a dramatic improvement over previous methods for producing marquetry. Assembling the work in a piece by piece style, the artist starts with a number of exact duplicate copies of the drawing being used. This allows accuracy by cutting veneers through the drawn pattern, assembling the parts, and repeating the process until the entire piece is built.

The 20th century

Marquetry enjoyed resurgence at the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of the Modern Style, which included parts of both the Art Noveau and the Art Deco movements of art and furniture design. Two of the most prominent practitioners during the Art Noveau period were Emile Galle and Louis Majorelle, furniture designers who created very elaborate floral and animal designs. One of the most important Art Deco marquetry artists was Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, the prominent French furniture designer who often combined materials such as ivory and ebony along with various veneer burls to produce striking results.

With the dawn of the industrial revolution, mass production lessened the importance and demand for this labor-intensive type of woodwork, and it was relegated to the production of extremely expensive furniture. As a form of folk art, it became what for a time was termed “Male Quilting” because of the similarities to the craft tradition of needlework. During this period many beautiful pieces of work were produced by hobbyists who kept alive the tradition of making pictures with wood.