Faux Bois Fantasy
by Barbara Schumacher
It was some ten years ago that I was first introduced to the charms of faux bois (imitation wood). My husband John and I were taking a pre-sunset stroll in the Jardin Montsouris in Paris before dinner on the terrace of the charming Pavillon Montsouris restaurant on the edge of the park. Everywhere we looked we encountered fantastical "wood" bridges, benches and planters all incredibly realistic yet a bit "over the top" in their design. Upon closer examination we realized they were not wood at all, but lowly cement that somehow had been carved and molded into gnarled tree-like forms. From that moment on I was hooked, and we looked for pieces wherever we went, taking photos and notes on pieces that intrigued us.
However, it was only when we purchased our house in Westchester, a rustic stone hunting lodge set on acres of rocky hills, that the passion for faux bois could finally find its home. (Somehow, as much as I tried, faux bois never looked quite right on the terrace of our New York apartment.) When we opened Fleur last year, I knew that I wanted faux bois items to be the centerpiece of the shop. It is perfect for indoor as well as outdoor usage and blends into the naturalistic settings in our area of the Northeast perfectly.
Faux bois most likely found its beginnings in France, England, and Italy during the late eighteenth century or the early nineteenth century. Typically the pieces were created by the hands of rocaillers or stone workers. They were highly skilled artisans but not artists per se so very few pieces were signed or marked. They worked using a base of cement or metal after creating a wire frame. On very old pieces you can often glimpse a piece of the wire frame in an area where the cement has chipped or worn away. The artisan applied the cement mixture often tinted with wood-like colored pigments and molded and carved the setting cement into fantasy versions of logs and branches intertwined to support benches, chairs, tables and even arbor-like structures on which climbing roses could bloom. One of the many charms of faux bois is its naturalistic style-but nature as we want it to be in a perfect world. The perfect branch sprouting a perfect petit champignon (tiny mushroom) evokes a certain nostalgia for simpler, cozier times.
Faux bois techniques traveled with these skilled artisans and arrived in the Unites States from Europe. Again they looked to the native landscape for their inspiration and adapted their skills to the local materials as well. At FLEUR we have an extraordinary American example from the early twentieth century, a set of four tree-trunk planters of various heights that are extremely realistic. Incredibly the artisan who created this wonderful grouping used ceramic sewer pipes from Ohio as the base of his creation. I recently acquired a beautiful pair of faux bois candelabra created by a contemporary French artist, Fabien Rochoux. He takes the metier of faux bois to more sophisticated and artistic levels. While still naturalistic and realistic he adds a level of a true artist's fantasy and creativity. I hope to visit his garden soon to see his creations in place.
Proper care of faux bois is crucial to preserving your pieces for many years. Smaller objects should be moved into a sheltered area free from water or frost. Larger pieces that are too heavy to be moved must be properly wrapped in plastic and well secured so that water or ice crystals are not allowed to settle into crevices. During the thawing process this expansion and contraction of the water can cause serious cracking.
After the 1920s faux bois lost some of its popularity in the age of modernism and art deco. At the beginning of the twenty-first century it has once again become the rage as gardeners appreciate the potential of rustic naturalistic style of landscaping. At Fleur we are always on the hunt for wonderful tables, benches and chairs, and we encourage our clients to try them in the house or garden room as well as the garden itself. Planting troughs and tubs are enormously popular, but they are harder to find in good condition as they were usually very strongly used. We are always on the lookout for small items like tabletop planters, but very few have survived. One great piece that I missed and regret to this day was a wonderful trellis-like rose arbor. I am still looking to find another! Prices for faux bois pieces at FLEUR range from $2,000 to $12,000.