Shagreen – Design Term

Shagreen glasses case, China 19th Century

Shagreen is fish skin used as a veneer to cover furniture and accessories. Also known as galuchat and sharkskin, shagreen is the skin on the belly of the dogfish. As a generic term, it is used to mean untanned animal hides made with pebble-textured surfaces. It was first made in the 17th century by Turkish and Persian herdsmen. Galuchat is named after the Parisian craftsman active during the reign of Louis XIV who made sheaths and boxes. 

Shagreen, fresh off the fish, is like caviar, dense, odorous and bubbly. Stretched out and cured, it lends itself to the fine inlay or to the covering of small pieces of furniture. It has become something of a fad at times. In the 1920s, the Prince of Wales commissioned shagreen caps for his shoes, and the Aga Khan, a decade later, ordered shagreen inlays for the interior of his Rolls-Royce. It was also used on the Italian Maiolica.

British artisan John Paul Cooper specialized in unusual materials, especially shagreen which he began using in 1903. This was some time before other Arts and Crafts practitioners began using the material before it became popular in 1910. After a 200-year hiatus, it was used by Clement Mere on toiletry boxes, sewing cases, and other small objects at the Paris Salons. 

Shagreen leather used in book binding

By the 1920s Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, Clement Rousseau, Andre Groult, Dominique, and other French designers used shagreen extensively combined with exotic woods. Jean-Michel Frank used shagreen to cover whole furniture pieces. When used on furniture, the skin is soaked in a chlorine solution to bleach it, followed by scrubbing with a wire brush and a pumice stone to remove imperfections. The skin is usually stained green by a copper-acetate solution but can be made pink, blue, or grey. Its use is most effective on small objects, like those produced by Tiffany, Asprey, and Dunhill in the 1920s and 1930s. Synthetic shagreen is available, though it is more expensive and less desirable than the real product. 

Sources

Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, December 31). Shagreen. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:24, January 10, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Shagreen&oldid=997422339

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