Those looking to immerse themselves in the gilder’s profession should take a trip to the Gohard workshop in Red Hook in South Brooklyn. The artisans’ latest creations are stacked around the site. In one corner, visitors will spot a bronze mirror framed with gold-leafed beads created for a duplex apartment on Park Avenue. In another they will see three console tables designed as part of the furniture in a skyscraper south of Central Park. “We work in the very high-end market,” says Sébastien Vallin, workshop manager in the United States. “There are acrylic coatings that can imitate the appearance of gold, but our clients demand the real thing: gold leaf or nothing.” A material 250 times thinner than a sheet of paper!
The master gilder Robert Gohard founded his eponymous family business in Paris in 1962. Six years later he received a Historical Monuments certification authorizing him to renovate France’s national heritage buildings and objects. His first public works commission led him to the seventh arrondissement of Paris, where he restored the gildings of the Beauharnais Hotel, the former residence of Napoleon Bonaparte’s son-in-law which is now the residence of the German ambassador.
The Torch of the Statue of Liberty
The Parisian gilders received their first American commission in 1985. And it was a herculean task. In the run up to its 100th anniversary, the Statue of Liberty was set to be restored to its original condition. The glass paneling that had replaced the flame in 1916 was removed and French architect Thierry Despont was charged with recreating the original designed by Bartholdi in 1886. He called on the services of the Métalliers Champenois to forge the copper framework and approached the Ateliers Gohard to coat the flame in gold.
Exposed to the sea air and bad weather, the gilding on the flame had to be able to withstand anything. Five thousand gold leaves – the equivalent of just 5.6 ounces – were applied on top of an oil-based adhesive coating. The artisans set up their equipment under a tent on Liberty Island and began their work, first applying the adhesive undercoat before using brushes to cover the flame with gold leaf.
To make the flame resistant to oxidization and the erosion caused by rain water, the material used was as pure as possible at 23.52 carats. It was also twice as thick as the gold leaf traditionally used for outdoor projects. The gold leaves each measured in at 980 thousandths of a millimeter thick were hammered by the Ateliers Dauvet in Excenevex in the Haute-Savoie region. The same material can be found on the top of the column in the center of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, as well as on the Archangel Michael in Mont-Saint-Michel. And another, perhaps lesser-known advantage offered by gold is that its shimmering frightens away birds! After three weeks of work the flame was hoisted back up on November 25, 1985 and inaugurated on Fourth of July, 1986.
A Symbolic Presence in the United States
Sébastien Vallin, 40, is too young to have taken part in the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. But ss the head of the Ateliers Gohard in New York he keeps a packet of gold leaves in his office. Anyone would think it was in case a piece of gilding needed repairs, but no. “It is out of love for the material,” he says. “Our presence in the United States is recent, but our know-how is ancient.”
Photographs displayed in the workshop offer an idea of the company’s prestigious projects. Visitors will see such exploits as the winged horses on the Alexandre III Bridge and the domes on the Russian Orthodox Church in Paris, the roofs, gates, and the king’s bedroom at the Château de Versailles, the statue of Hercules in Vaux-le-Vicomte, and the Virgin Mary on the bell tower of Cambrai Cathedral. Other photos depict the Salon Doré of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and the Rose des Vents by Jean-Michel Othoniel, a permanent sculpture in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
The Ateliers Gohard have been working in North America since the mid-1980s, but Baptiste Gohard, the founder’s grandson, decided to develop the company. The brand’s presence in the United States remains symbolic, however, generating just 10% of the company’s annual revenue. Ten people currently work at the New York site, three of whom are French.
From Gilding to Decorative Painting
In France, the restoration of historical monuments only represents 20% of the Ateliers Gohard’s turnover, which led the company to turn to private clients such as the Ritz, the Hôtel de Crillon, Dior, and the Van Cleef & Arpels jewelers. And the workshop has also made forays into interior design. Aside from gilding, artisans are also tasked with decorative painting to create imitations of premium materials such as fine woods and marbles. They also work on other surfaces and furniture, drawing on techniques such as lacquering, patina finishes, plasterwork, stucco, and cold metal coatings.
Back in the United States, where the company is not authorized to work on heritage sites, members of the public represent the majority of the artisans’ projects. Sébastien Vallin – who is also a trained gilder – recently restored a suite of Louis XV furniture for a residence on the Upper East Side in New York. Every armchair, frame, and table were redecorated using a technique known as “water gilding,” or “bole gilding.” This was also used to restore the balustrade in the king’s bedroom at the Château de Versailles and the wood paneling in the Battle Gallery at the Château de Chantilly.
A Movement Repeated Ad Infinitum
The artisans first prepare the base coating using a plaster compound called “gesso” made with chalk powder and rabbit-skin glue. They then sand the surface and chisel the original motif into this foundation, before applying seven or eight layers of Armenian bole, a blend of clay and glue. After this “cushion” is dampened, it “catches” the gold leaf as it is applied before the artisans press and polish it using a piece of agate stone. Needless to say, this procedure is as meticulous as it is time-consuming. A total of 22 steps are needed to give the gold leaf its iridescent appearance.
Gohard also installed five gilded plaster columns in the CUT restaurant owned by Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck in Tribeca and gilded a bronze screen for an apartment formerly owned by singer Lou Reed. More recently, the artisans gold-leafed the walls of an office on the Upper East Side. Each gold leaf was given patina and varnish finishes to create a vintage effect.
In an effort to develop new techniques while preserving traditional methods, the Ateliers Gohard are considering opening a training center in Paris. The Ecole de la Bonne Graine in the 11th arrondissement of the French capital is currently the only establishment still teaching a decorative gilding course. “The role of a company such as ours is to continue the tradition of French artisanry and craft on a national and international level,” says Sébastien Vallin. “We are maintaining history itself.”
Article published in the July 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.