The elaborate decoration of two cabinets by Anton Seuffert - the ‘Watt cabinet’ and the ‘Hooker cabinet’ - is an example of marquetry. It is a technique of finishing wooden furniture with a thin layer of wood, or veneer. The veneer may be made up of thousands of separate pieces of wood assembled like a jigsaw to make patterns or pictures.
The technique became widely known in Europe about three hundred years ago, when it was used to adorn plain surfaces with bird, flower, and foliage patterns. The veneer can be a complete surface layer, or it can be inlaid, so that it finishes flush with the undecorated surface of the furniture.
Marquetry was very time-consuming – every piece of veneer had to be cut individually by hand. As the technique became popular, the patterns became more elaborate. Other materials were included – ivory, mother-of-pearl, tortoise-shell, and metal. The artistry of the cabinetmaker was to use the natural textures of all these materials, including the varying grains in different kinds of wood, to produce a complex and aesthetically pleasing surface. Tables, desks, cabinets, and chests of drawers were popular subjects for marquetry display.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2001).