‘In Feather-Working, the Only Limitation is One’s Own Imagination’: Julien Vermeulen, Stefan Hanß and Ulinka Rublack on the past and future of feather-working
The British Academy event Microscopic Records: The New Interdisciplinarity of Early Modern Studies, c. 1400–1800 shall challenge traditional disciplinary boundaries of research on early modern material culture. One way of doing so is to foster a dialogue between the humanities and the sciences, leading historians into laboratories; another way is to allow historians to enter into workshops, bringing history into a conversation with makers and artists. Driven by early modern historians’ inspiring work on remaking experiments, this interview aims at reconsidering the relationships between making, cognition and imagination in material culture studies.
Feather artist Julien Vermeulen is one of the most aspiring young artists of our time. During the last four years, Vermeulen won the Grand Prix de la Création de la Ville de Paris (2015), the Prix Rising Talents de Maison & Objets (2016), as well as the Prix Ateliers d’Arts de France – Région Île de France (2017). In his studio in Paris, Vermeulen experiments with feathers and manufactures them into works of art and haute couture (fig. 1). Amongst Vermeulen’s most acclaimed works rate the ‘Bado Senshi’, ‘Pathétique trophée’ and ‘Gustave, l’ours en plumes’. Furthermore, Vermeulen collaborated with designers and fan makers such as Pierre Charrié, Elise Hameau, and Duvelleroy. Most recently, the Fond National de Promotion et de Communication de l’Artisanat appointed Vermeulen ambassador of French craftsmanship. Manchester historian Stefan Hanß and Cambridge historian Ulinka Rublack, whose research in the Materialized Identities project group explores the artisanal and emotional world of early modern feather-working, invited Julien Vermeulen to respond to some questions about his own work, as well as his relationship with the vibrant past of this almost forgotten art and craft.
Fig. 1: Julien Vermeulen at work in his studio. © Maison Julien Vermeulen.
Stefan Hanß: As historians we found that feather-working became a burgeoning business in early modern Paris. More than 240 feather-working artisans sold and advertised a wide range of products ranging from headwear, collars, shoulder and elbow adornments, necklaces, panaches, fans, and shin-guards to furniture and domestic adornments. Studying the inventories of the workshops of plumassiers in Paris between 1500 and 1800, I could see that feather-workers collected hundreds of feathers of different kinds of birds and manufactured them into dyed, starched, bended, and curled feathers, as well as other intricate feather-work. The inventories list plenty of dyestuff and instruments as well. The degree of expertise is stunning. What are the five most fascinating materials and objects that a visitor would find in your studio? How would you use them?
Julien Vermeulen: There are five particularly fascinating objects in my studio. The strangest object is for sure my copper steam machine (machine à vapeur en cuivre): it is more than 200 years old and looks a bit like a pressure cooker on top of a watering can. The machine produces steam that is used to clean the feathers and to get them into shape, for instance, by eliminating creases. The most indispensable object is my Bruxelles, a traditional feather-working tool that looks like big tweezers with a pick on its end (fig. 2). I use this tool for handling the materials, positioning the glue, and cutting the feathers. My Bruxelles is more than 150 years old. It was given to me by my master craftsman after the apprenticeship, and he had received it from his own master beforehand. I also use old manuals of feather-working techniques that date back to 1870. These manuals contain recipes and inspirations for my own work. This is an important heritage. The fourth fascinating object in my studio is the ‘boa pistol’ (mitraillette à boas). It looks like a crank handle and is used to manufacture and lathe feather boas. Finally, my workshop’s treasure is a box of old feathers from which I draw my inspiration for colours and manufacturing techniques. This box is like a time machine to immerse oneself in ancient know-how (les anciens savoir-faire).
Fig. 2: Julien Vermeulen’s Bruxelles. © Maison Julien Vermeulen.
Stefan Hanß: In 1551, Jean Vermault signed a contract to become an apprentice of the Parisian maître plumassier Adrien Traversier. Similar documents, as well as guild records, across early modern Europe demonstrate the significance of a years-long apprenticeship for developing the intricate skills of feather-working. When did Julien Vermeulen start to work with feathers, and what is the role of practice, training, and experiments for artists working with feathers today?
Julien Vermeulen: I experimented with feathers for the first time seven years ago, when working with a coat by Jean Paul Gaultier that was made out of feathers representing the motif of a leopard. Based on that experience, I did a one-year apprenticeship with a master feather-worker before starting to work with feathers myself. Today, new technologies, new products, and new materials offer an ever larger experimental field, for instance, laser-engraved feathers.
Stefan Hanß: Dionisio Minaggio, a gardener of the Spanish governor of Milan, produced a famous ‘Feather Book’ in 1618. He cut and glued feathers to a number of fascinating collages that show birds as well as scenarios of everyday life and cultural stereotypes. Based on your own experience in feather-working, how would you assess the complexity of Minaggio’s craft techniques and artistic skills in his feather mosaics showing a knife-sharpener (fig. 3) and a parrot (fig. 4)?
Julien Vermeulen: From the point of view of complexity, the work of Dionisio Minaggio is remarkable since at that time traditional natural glues were more adhesive than today. His works are of great precision; the colour scheme perfectly translates the different degrees of volume and depth. From an artistic point of view, the work almost appears to be engraving or photography.
Fig. 3–4: Dionisio Minaggio’s representations of a knife-sharpener and parrot (Milan, 1618). © McGill University Library, http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/featherbook/images/tavola46.JPG and http://digital.library.mcgill.ca/featherbook/images/tavola75.JPG.
Ulinka Rublack: Do you glue feathers as well and how long does that take to learn? What took you longest to learn to do well? Have you used natural dyes on feathers and what challenges are there? Did you come across different techniques to dry feathers after they are dyed in order to restore volume?
Julien Vermeulen: I use the technique of feather-collages. To fully master this know-how (savoir-faire), it needs several months. It takes the longest time to train one’s eye to see all the details of this working method at the very same time and to anticipate the final collage. From time to time, I also apply the technique of decoloration (décoloration) but often only in order to re-colour the feathers in a second step. It is challenging not to damage or burn the feathers and to keep their natural texture. After such dyeing procedures, the feathers need to be re-hydrated with oils and then dried with hot air. In a last step the feathers need to be steamed as this keeps the fluffiness and the natural appearance of the feather.
Stefan Hanß: ‘Bado Senshi’ is one of your prize-winning masterpieces. It combines the aesthetics of traditional Japanese samurai armours with the iridescent effects of feathers (fig. 5). Could you please comment on ‘Bado Senshi’ from your own perspective? What did inspire you to produce this piece of art, and how did you try to realize and capture your intentions? To which extent did you engage with Japanese artistic traditions? The British Museum, for instance, holds a late sixteenth-century jimbaori, a Japanese surcoat that was worn above armour (fig. 6). It is produced out of hemp, Chinese silk and paper; the feathers of Japanese pheasants and drakes are affixed to it. How would you position your own work in relation to such traditional Japanese feather-work that was produced more than four hundred years ago?
Julien Vermeulen: I reinterpreted the traditional Japanese armour as I am fascinated by the different codes of fighting; in particular, I am fascinated by the psychological war of destabilizing the enemy that takes place even before the actual physical fight begins. I found it particularly fascinating to approach this topic by using feathers as they do not physically protect the samurai. I drew on the traditional codes of samurai armour and replaced the material assemblage with feathers. It was particularly demanding to mould the shape of the feathers in such ways that they follow the curves of the body. The colours resemble Japanese symbols as black and red hold a prominent place in Japanese mentalities. Jimbaori inspired the project: we encounter the very same techniques and manufacturing procedures, only the nature of feathers differs.
Fig. 5: Julien Vermeulen, Bado Senshi. © Maison Julien Vermeulen.
Fig. 6: A sixteenth-century Japanese feathered armour (jimbaori). British Museum, 1897,0318.6. © British Museum, https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/ collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=34733001&objectId=770519&partId=1.
Ulinka Rublack: Do different kinds of feathers evoke particular emotions and sentiments for you? To what extent do you develop your artistic ideas in relation to the specific texture and colour of different types of feathers? Did you experience limits to impose your ideas on feathers?
Julien Vermeulen: Each type of feather relates to specific symbolic associations, especially in terms of emotions. Goose feathers, for example, bear very aggressive connotations. As each feather is associated with certain symbolic meanings, I carefully choose colours and materials corresponding to the desired result. In feather-working, the only limitation is one’s own imagination.
Stefan Hanß: A sixteenth-century portrait of Charles IX of France (1550–1574) shows the importance of feathers for textiles in general and royal caps in particular (fig. 7). In the sixteenth century, feathers often adorned headgear. How would you interpret the aesthetics of such feathered objects? Based on your own experience, which steps artisans might have applied manufacturing the feathers of the king’s cap? As you have collaborated in producing haute couture (fig. 8), what is your own experience in using feathers for fashionable textiles? What are the possibilities, what the challenges?
Julien Vermeulen: At that time, such objects served as social markers, but these kinds of creations are somehow obsolete today. It is a labour-intensive procedure to select the most beautiful feathers. Often, they were dyed and sewn together in two or three layers at spots that are not visible to the eye. Finally, each of the feathers got individually curled with a knife and assembled and mounted on the hat. I had the pleasure to collaborate in Haute Couture projects on many occasions. Today, fashion designers ask us to sublimate and exceed the material so that the result hardly looks like a feather any longer. There are endless possibilities to do so as makers do not set themselves creative boundaries. Today, the challenge is to constantly renew ideas. Whilst retaining the same basic material, the rhythms of fashion are becoming ever faster; the creations are getting ever newer and ever more spectacular.
Fig. 7: Anonymous artist (after François Clouet), Charles IX of France, 16th century. Musée national du châteu, Versailles. © Wikimedia commons.
Fig. 8: Elise Hameau and Julien Vermeulen, wedding accessory made from feathers. © Maud Chalard, http://maisonjulienvermeulen.com/accessoires-de-mariage-en-plume/.
Stefan Hanß and Ulinka Rublack: Over the last centuries, the craft and art of feather-working has faced a number of significant changes. How do you think European techniques have changed, and what do you see as the future of the plumasserie?
Julien Vermeulen: Whilst techniques of manual work are barely different, the constructions and demands have changed considerably. Such shifts oblige us to constantly reinvent the iconography of our profession (métier). A century ago, French feather-working largely consisted of plumaged hats and cabaret boas. Today, the material universes of feather-working are more graphic: we are creating games of textures (jeux de textures), and this engagement will further develop thanks to new technologies.
The material worlds of early modern feather-workers mentioned in this interview are discussed in more detail in ‘Making Feather-Work in Early Modern Europe’, a book chapter of Stefan Hanß which is currently in press. This chapter charts, for the very first time, the thus far unknown history of early modern European feather-working in its relationship with the world of matter and making. Another article on feather-working in colonial Peru was published in The Historical Journal.
For more information on Julien Vermeulen’s fascinating work, see http://maisonjulienvermeulen.com/accueil/.
Cambridge historian Ulinka Rublack conducts research on early modern feather-work as part of the Materialized Identities research group. In the course of this project, she had a Renaissance feather headdress reconstructed and the process documented on film (see https://youtu.be/YhtG9Lk2_6U).
The present interview was translated from French into English by Stefan Hanß.