"I've always loved the forgotten crafts," Nathalie Sann says as she puts the finishing touches on a mother-of-pearl pendant she has recently gilded, "the things people don't do anymore because they're time-consuminglike embroidery, gold leaf and pen work."
In her quest to revive traditional decorating techniques, Paris-born Sann, 39, teaches cross-stitching, monogramming and needlepoint in New York City. And she has recently written, with coauthors Véronique Agon and Isabelle Marot-Achillas, La Feuille d'Or: Trésors à faire soi-même (Gold Leaf: Treasures You Can Make Yourself). This glossy coffee-table book provides instructions on how to embellish plates, vases, frames, tablecloths, food, even stiletto heels with gold leaf. The publisher, Minerva, released the book in France in October; an English-language version is in the works.
"Everybody thinks gold leaf is so hard to do," says Sann, who has spent the last few years at the Isabel O'Neil Studio Workshop in Manhattan mastering gilding techniques that date back to Ancient Egypt (roughly 2300 b.c.). "We want to show that it can also be fun, easy and modern." While many of the existing books on gold leaf focus on its role in restoring antiques, La Feuille d'Or suggests original ways to apply the art. In their experiments, for instance, the trio of authors successfully devised a gold-leaf tattoo using gelatin and a touch of food coloring.
In less than an hour, Sann can turn basic tabletop objects into elegant designs. First, she brushes gelatin adhesive over inexpensive cutlery or plates (for objects that won't come into contact with food, she uses gold size, a kind of glue sold in crafts stores), then coats them with gold leaf. To heighten the effect, she might finish the piece with clear varnish or polish it with steel wool to add a patina. To give food a festive touch, she also suggests folding specks of edible gold leaf into homemade caramels or sprinkling them on risotto.
Apparently, Sann's skill runs in the family. Back in Paris, her mother restores old fabric and cashmere knits, while her sister, sister-in-law and niece cross-stitch their own designs. "As soon as we see each other on visits, we swap ideas and embroidery books," Sann says.
Sann keeps several pieces of antique cashmere that her mother restored on display at her house in Sagaponack, New York. Built in 1796, the Hamptons property was previously owned by Henry Golightly, an eccentric gentleman who supposedly inspired the Holly Golightly character in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Sann and her husband held onto a selection of Golightly's books, paintings and furniture, which they promised to do when they bought the house, then decorated the rest of the house simply with Early American, French and English antiques. When they renovated, they also kept original architectural details in each of the main rooms: The square dining room has exposed beams and an original built-in cabinet for storing china; in the living room, a large couch faces a deep fireplace once used for baking bread.
Though the kitchen is set toward the back of the house, Sann considers it a central gathering place. The wood-paneled room is equipped with a custom-made Diva de Provence stove, antique madeleine molds and copper pots from Dehillerin, Paris's landmark kitchen store. At a Paris flea market, Sann bought a rustic wooden tablewith a deep drawer that was designed to store flourwhich now serves as an island and several 18th-century French prayer stools she uses as kitchen chairs.
"I wanted the feeling of a big French kitchen," says Sann, who was inspired by her grandparents' vast kitchen in Brittany. "In my family, it's the heart of the house, where everyone comes to eat, talk and work on our crafts." These are good, old-fashioned values for modern times, befitting a woman who's bringing gold leaf into the 21st century.
Melissa Ceria is a freelance writer in New York whose work has been published in the New York Times and Harper's Bazaar.