Our Latest Obsession: Nelly Saunier & The Art of Plumasserie

Love Happens’ latest obsession, Nelly Saunier, has served as a reminder that one does not need to cross distances to transcend a boundary. The French feather artist and I connected during the COVID-19 pandemic making it impossible to visit her workshop in person and fully experience the rich textures and delicate flourishes which define her work. Nonetheless, embodied in the unique and ancient art of plumasserie, perceived boundaries of realms and culture do not confine creations.

At the core of Saunier’s artwork is her love for the connection between people and nature. In her words, “[the] combination of the two worlds, this invisible and sacred link which unites man and nature, in the confines of the real and unreal.” She eliminates harsh divides between the two domains, and by extension, she distorts other boundaries, allowing connections to form in all circumstances.

The interview with this singular artisan was conducted through a translator, so it is important to note that I’ve done my best to capture her sentiment and the emotions this unique process of getting to know her has given me.

She tells me she begins her day with a fleeting moment to center herself in a place of inspiration. She describes her workspace as luminous, calm, orderly, and organized—all feelings that carry through her correspondence.

I look at my cat rolling across an antique carpet and reflect for a moment as I read Nelly Saunier’s thoughts. I imagine her at the 10-meter long table she describes, arranging feathers for upcoming work. Sketches and material samples covering her walls.

nelly saunier art work

AN INSPIRED PASSION

At 14, Nelly Saunier discovered plumasserie at Lycée Professionnel Octave Feuillet, one of the last remaining places in France to learn the trade’s centuries-old techniques. “With mingled certainty and immense enthusiasm, I had no doubts,” says Saunier of the moment she realized her passion. A profession perfectly “in line with her skills, dreams of expression and personality”, she decided at once to dedicate her life to plumasserie — developing and defending the fading ancestral art form.

Like many patterns, materials, or colors, the feather has waned in and out of fashion with the passing of seasons. When Saunier began, it was in a less fashionable phase. Nevertheless, she was keen to promote the profession and keep it alive.

“Fashion is an eternal restart. Nothing is lost, everything is transformed”, explains Saunier. A perfect statement to describe both the timelessness of, and the way in which, her work parallels the rhythms of nature. In each of her creations, Saunier makes the precision and specific techniques required to work with feathers her own. With intense respect for nature, her skills allow her to elevate the naturally born feather to a new level, creating items that withstand time.

I am reminded of an opinion by John McWhorter on preserving dying languages, “If a language dies, a fascinating way of thinking dies along with it”. If the art of plumasserie continues to dwindle, another way of communicating, thinking, and connecting to nature would be lost.

Luckily, in the last decade, plumasserie is among the unique crafts experiencing a resurgence in France. Saunier has hand-crafted elaborate works in collaboration with major fashion houses and jewelers like Chanel, Givenchy, Harry Winston, and Maï Lamore. The elaborate parrot feather bolero she created during a 17-year collaboration with Jean-Paul Gaultier required 300 hours of work to complete. With true love for the craft, “despite being frequently hired by the most prestigious brands and designers, she always sets time aside for her own artistic endeavors.”

merveille dining chair koket luxury feather furniture

PRESERVATION THROUGH RESPECTFUL CREATIVITY

In her work, Nelly Saunier is also attentive to preserving nature. In her words, she is “extremely sensitive to everything that touches on preserving the planet and the study of life on earth.” A student of naturalists, she feels that learning about the diversity of animal species allows her to travel without moving. As an infinite source of wealth and beauty, Saunier’s greatest inspiration comes from nature, so she always chooses her materials with an imperative on preservation.

Conservation is a main driver in how Saunier selects materials. She considers aspects like the breeding method—opting for farmed birds. She also adheres to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (commonly known as CITES or the Washington Treaty), which helps ensure that the trade of wildlife is sustainable and does not include endangered species.

Depending on the nature of the plumasserie project, she may select sustainable feathers strictly for their natural qualities and appearance. However, her understanding of the material reveals possibilities for transformation. For example, in order to evoke the appearance of flower petals, she may dye white feathers with a gradient. The piece’s scale will also inform her choice. She looks for materials with “a rich variety of textures.”

As she describes the variety of feathers—matte, shiny, fluffy, smooth, patterned, the range of colors—I am reminded of the simple joy of finding a feather I felt as a child. Inevitably, the quill and vane provoke curiosity. Individually, each feather is intriguing, yet they must come together to create something truly great. Saunier brings them together to transcend their initial beauty—what we all expect. Through her imagination, she brings exquisite surprises.

At the beginning of a project, Saunier says, “I feel bubbling inside me, an impatience to bring up an idea.” In her art, she offers a message of connection with the world around us. As a material, the feather works as an illusion to create an invisible link with nature. Each piece shares her “limitless admiration and fascination for the aerial world.”

She appreciates that birds are born with the elegance her work builds off—“they don’t lie with their appearance.” This freedom of expression and spontaneity is a part of her character as well. By embodying it in her work she shares her hopeful belief that “creation is a divinity that lives in our soul and that never ceases to make us even more alive.”

nelly saunier Plumasserie artist at work

ART WITH A MESSAGE

When asked what feeling she wants others to associate with her art, Nelly Saunier looks forward to the Nature Transformee collection which will be displayed in Paris in September 2021. This collection includes many pieces which make her happy and convey her ubiquitous message of hope.

In 2015, while participating in an artist residency in Kujoyama, Japan, Saunier met Ikebana master Shuho Hananofu. In her description of Kujoyama, “perched on a mountainside, isolated in a green setting, the city seemed to announce the adventure that awaited me in connection with nature,” one remembers the importance of her workspace being calm, luminous, and inspirational. Through Nature Transformee, she captures and transports the inspiration and emotion she experienced during what was her farthest trip.

Along with Hananofu, Saunier was invited to do a performance sponsored by the French Institute of Kansai during a festival in Kyoto. This privilege was an opportunity to build a bridge between two masters of unique art forms. She de- scribes the experience of the performance as “An immersion in the heart of ancestral art that gave birth to a series of branches with leaves, flowers, and feathers for a performance to be made of smoke screens and false pretenses.”

Saunier credits this experience with conceiving the Nature Transformee collection. In this way, her unique plumasserie work transports us to new geographies across perceived cultural bounds. While in Japan, she created seven new pieces which Hananofu integrated into his composition.

She describes one in which she, “chose among the twigs that littered the studio, a tall and supple willow which matched in my imagination the feathers of an ostrich. Tinted and transformed for the occasion, the feathers were united in a graphic waterfall playing in the lightness of air.” By aligning flora and fauna, Saunier transforms nature and brings her dreams to life.

nature transformee collection Plumasserie art by nelly saunier

COMBINING WORLDS

During her experience in Japan, Saunier deepened the way she sees the world. Through her artwork, we all have access to that rare perspective. She describes the way she approaches branches after her time with Hananofu in Japan, “when my steps bring me close to a branch, it is the singularity and architecture that attracts me.” She appreciates each branch’s beauty and the way it manifests in nature.

As she works to transform the natural elements, she latches on to the remaining signs of life to halt their “course towards disappearance.” One of her pieces gives new life to branches torn by storms by embellishing them with feathers turned to leaves.

“By assembling my elements, I am in a quest for harmony to create illusion, mimicry, optical illusion across these fragments of nature. I aim for the balance between full and empty, shadow and light, small and large, in order to evoke the spirit of the living.” Her works bring poetic messages of the importance of nature in our lives—how we are connected to it, and how it connects us to one another. As she notes, “the beauty is not a simple ornament, it is a sign by which creation means to us that life has meaning.”

INTO THE FUTURE

I gaze out my window, studying the branches in view, listening to the birds. After time spent with Saunier, this scene is refreshed. I try to imagine how she might transform these elements. With her perspective, I have renewed hope.

As I lost myself in Nelly Saunier’s work, I was always drawn back to the reality of the present after forays into her ethereal world. Like all designers, Saunier has faced challenges in her artwork. Yet, nothing has extinguished her creativity. As she stated, “creation is a permanent part of my life.” In 2020 alone, she created 20 stunning unique works including one for the Philharmonie de Paris. A work measuring 3.8 meters tall, 2.8 meters long, and just over a meter wide, set to be featured at the Nightingale event in March 2022. Whatever the master plumasserie creates next is sure to delight with its unique perspective, and if you’re lucky enough a tactile experience as well.

Discover more Nelly Saunier at www.nelly-saunier.com!

Words by Emma Voight
Nelly Saunier & The Art of Plumasserie Originally Appeared in Love Happens Volume 5
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