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Little luxuries from France

World’s only umbrella master Michel Heurtault shows collection of 17th-20th century umbrellas, parasols

Luxury parasols and umbrellas, with elaborate embroidery and lace, precious tortoiseshell handles and silver and ivory shafts offer a glimpse into the French culture of luxury in the 17th to 20th centuries.

Platform-L, a modern and contemporary art venue in Seoul, is holding “Summer Bloom,” an exhibition featuring antique French umbrellas and parasols from different periods, collected by Michel Heurtault.

Michel Heurtault (Platform-L)
Michel Heurtault (Platform-L)
Installation view of Platform-L exhibition “Summer Bloom” (Platform-L)
Installation view of Platform-L exhibition “Summer Bloom” (Platform-L)

Born in 1966, Heurtault may be the only state-certificated master in the world who excels at not just making umbrellas, but also restoring them.

In 2013, Heurtault was awarded the title of “Maitre d’Art” (Master Artist) by the French Ministry of Culture. France’s highest honor for an artisan. The title is held today by only 124 French master craftsmen and women.

“I don’t know exactly how I became attracted by umbrellas at the age of 8. I perhaps liked the way the canopy runs on the top of the ribs. Or, I might have had an ancestor with the same occupation,” said Heurtault at a press conference Thursday at Platform-L.

Some 140 luxury umbrellas and parasols, selected from a much larger collection that he has been accumulating for more than 30 years, are on show at Platform-L.

Heurtault began collecting them when he was about 20 years old, after he moved to Paris from a small town. Rummaging through one antiques shop after another, he had collected about 800 umbrellas and parasols by the time he turned 30. Today, they number into the thousands.

Umbrellas and parasols were a significant part of old French culture, especially that of the upper class, according to Heurtault.

An early 20th century picture of a workshop located on Grand Boulevard illustrates the heyday of handcrafted umbrella and parasol industry in France.

“This historical photo of a workshop’s show window, which is full of handcrafted umbrellas and parasols, represents the particular importance that umbrellas had among other luxury items,” the master said.

Heurtault said he appreciates handcrafted umbrellas and parasols from the past because they are objects for everyday use, artistically taken to another level.

Heurtault wants to pass down the cultural legacy of these items.

“What I can do at this moment is to show that they were such beautiful handcrafted umbrellas and parasols in France,” he said when asked about the future of handcrafted umbrellas and parasols.

The master said that antique umbrellas and parasols are a great means to looking into the culture of the past as they reflect the socio-economic status of those who carried them.

The more sophisticated or artistic the engravings, the higher the odds of the carrier being from a wealthy family. The materials used also show how they showed off their wealth and social status.

The knob of this 1910 umbrella features a small gold watch. (Yonhap)
The knob of this 1910 umbrella features a small gold watch. (Yonhap)
This 1900 parasol is believed to have been a wedding gift. (Yonhap)
This 1900 parasol is believed to have been a wedding gift. (Yonhap)

Many umbrellas have ribs made of whale bones and handles and shafts made of ivory. They are often ornamented with gemstones like lapis lazuli, or even a small-sized watch attached at the end of the handle. The embroideries are so complex that it could take days to complete, a Platform-L curator explained.

According to Heurtault, umbrellas and parasols were presented as gifts in handy containers.

A parasol made in 1820 comes with a box that contains decorative parts that one could affix. The parasol also comes with separate containers to protect the handle and top.

His favorite in the collection being shown in Seoul was a 17th century umbrella made by Jean Marius, a master purse maker and the inventor of the pocket umbrella and parasol in 1709.

Also on display is an umbrella created for 2015 film “Madame Bovary,” one of several of his collaborations with film and musical productions.

The master currently makes his works in an atelier in Auvergne, France, where he creates about five umbrellas or parasols a week, only upon request.

The exhibition runs through Sept. 19.