Tag Archives: inspiration

Gilakas’la! Welcome to Alert Bay!

Alert Bay. Totem poles, Namgis burial grounds.

Alert Bay. Totem poles, ‘Namgis burial grounds.

I have just returned from Alert Bay, a small village on Cormorant Island, off the North Coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The trip started very early in the morning with a ferry ride from Vancouver on the mainland to Nanaimo, then a long drive to the Northern tip of Vancouver Island to Port McNeill to take a final ferry to Alert Bay, just before sunset.

Port McNeill, BC. Ferry to Alert Bay.

Port McNeill, BC. Ferry to Alert Bay.

Alert Bay

Alert Bay

This was my third visit, and still, driving the whole length of this big island is always thrilling. The road stretches for miles and miles through big dense forests, with almost no one except for deer grazing on the side of the road and eagles flying above. It feels as if the forest will swallow you as soon as you stop moving. What’s even more astounding is that Port McNeill is “only” at the half-way mark to the north of British Columbia where it touches Alaska and the Yukon!

Alert Bay is the traditional home of the ‘Namgis First Nations who had established a thriving salmon fishing community there long before Captain Vancouver anchored his ship off the coast in the late 1700’s. It has always been an important fishing and supply centre, as the turn-of-the-century wooden buildings that still stand on Fir Street can attest. And it is famous for its totem poles.

Alert Bay from the ferry.

Alert Bay from the ferry.

Fir Street.

The bay from Fir Street.

Fir Street.

Fir Street.

Totem poles on Namgis burial grounds.

Totem poles on ‘Namgis burial grounds.

Totem poles on Namgis burial grounds.

Totem poles on ‘Namgis burial grounds.

This tiny island with a population of about 1,400 people has a very rich and, at times, turbulent history. On my first visit in the late eighties, the tension between the two communities was palpable (the population of the village is roughly half native and half non-native). Potlatchs (gift-giving festivals practiced by the Northwest coast tribes) had been made illegal in 1884 by the Canadian government and all the artefacts had been confiscated. After the ban was lifted in 1951, people continued fighting for the return of their ritual objects that were by then dispersed in several museums in Canada and around the world. Most of these objects have finally been returned to the village. They now constitute the “Potlatch Collection” of the U’mista Cultural Centre  – “U’mista” means “Return of our treasures”. This world-renowned collection of copper shields, dance regalia and carved masks is alone worth a trip should you consider exploring this part of Canada.

U'mista cultural centre.

U’mista cultural centre.





On my second and third visits, I found a healed community, warm and welcoming. In 1999, the Village of Alert Bay and the ‘Namgis First Nations signed the Alert Bay Accord, “a unique document under which they agreed to mutual support in civic and cultural matters affecting both jurisdictions”. U’mista strives to keep the rich cultural history of the First Peoples of the island alive and to “forge links between the past, present and future generations”. The traditional songs and dances of the potlatchs are being taught, as well as kwak’wala, the language of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

Alert Bay, Front Street.

Alert Bay, Front Street.

Strolling through the village, accompanied by the croak of Raven the Trickster echoing from the tall cedars, I am reminded of the power of these treasures, and the totem poles come alive.

D Brechault Alert Bay totem poles

D Brechault Alert Bay totem polesD Brechault Alert Bay totem poles

How to Wrap Five Eggs: a designer’s must-have

How to Wrap Five Eggs - Traditional Japanese Packaging, by Hideyuki Oka. Photographs by Michikazu Sakai.

How to Wrap Five Eggs – Traditional Japanese Packaging, by Hideyuki Oka. Photographs by Michikazu Sakai.

For years, I lugged around a dog-eared copy of “How to Wrap Five Eggs”, a coffee-table size book from my local library. Knowing that it was both out of print and unaffordable, I made dozens of drawings from the gorgeous black and white illustrations so that I could revisit them and mine them for ideas later (until I had received too many angry reminders from the library, and had to reluctantly return the book). I found everything I was looking for, and much more: timeless designs, both practical and beautiful.

Drawings based on How to Wrap Five Eggs.

My sketchbook. Drawings based on How to Wrap Five Eggs.

Hideyuki Oka (1905-1995), a renowned Japanese graphic designer, collected traditional Japanese packaging and his collections were regularly exhibited around the world. A book featuring over 200 traditional objects from his collection, with illustrations by Michikazu Sakai, and commentaries by Oka, was published in 1967. A second edition came out in 1975 under the title “How to Wrap Five More Eggs”. These are pricey, oversized books, with gorgeous black and white photographs, that, as I said, are unfortunately out of print. However, in 2008, Shambhala Publications reissued the second book inexplicably under the title of the first book “How to Wrap Five Eggs”. As a paperback, it is now quite affordable, and also, thankfully, much easier to lug around!

When searching for inspiration and new ideas, I always prefer to look at other mediums. By avoiding jewellery, I am more likely to come up with less predictable, fresher ideas. Also, I find that most design solutions can be translated from one medium to another. This book is an excellent tool for the design process. It shows what makes a “good” design – a balanced relationship between beauty and function.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs page 137

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 137.

(Above) A package of dried tofu slices made of rice straw. It reminds me of the lavender potpourris my grandmother would make every year at the end of the summer. The bundle of long-stemmed flowers was tied tightly together, then bent onto itself to keep the flowers on the inside. A silk ribbon was threaded through to keep it from breaking and spilling its contents on the linens. Simple, but effective.

Drawing 2 (185-186) 160-161

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 160-161

(Above) Tofu and “mochi” (steamed rice) pounded into cakes and strung with rice straw. Can be hung from the ceiling and used as needed. Ordinary, everyday products are beautifully and elegantly packaged. The strong graphic lines of the straw create a very pleasing rhythmical pattern.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 138-139

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 138-139.

(Above) Basic packages made from natural materials and designed to carry, store and preserve various food items. Palm leaf, and a sheath of straw.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 150.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 150.

(Above) Sampling of food from a restaurant in Tokyo wrapped in an unadorned package – except for the elaborate knots of the straw rope. This was meant to be given as a gift. It is quite understated, but done with great care and consideration. According to Oka, “What is the use of a package if it shows no feeling?”

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 138.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 138.

(Above) A section of bamboo covered with straw, used as a container for pickled roots of mountain burdock. Rustic looking, but its shape is perfectly suited for the long roots of burdock. The handle is a small piece of bamboo inserted into holes pierced into two prongs protruding from the bamboo tube – a simple, but elegant solution that could be easily translated into metal.

Drawing after How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 35.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 35.

(Above) Container for candies, from Okayama Prefecture. Pottery in the shape of a peach tied with braided ropes. The design is based on the fairy tale of Momotaro, the boy born from a peach. The bottom part of the container is a half-sphere; the top is made of two domed sections. This is another design that could be adapted to metalwork, for a small locket or a larger scale vessel, with a lid articulated on hinges.

What I have presented in this post is a small sampling of what can be found in Oka’s book. In this selection, I chose to focus mostly on simple packages made with everyday natural materials, whatever was at hand, like straw, leaves and bamboo. “How to Wrap Five Eggs” offers many more examples of wrappers, boxes, baskets and various containers, some more intricate or less rustic, and using clay, paper, wood or fabric. Regardless of the choice of materials, no matter how humble they might be, the craftsmanship is always exquisite; whatever the technique (ceramics, wood carving, basketry, etc.), every piece shows a careful attention for the simplest of details, as well as ingenuity and creativity. These are valuable lessons on how to apply smart, elegant solutions to design challenges; timeless in that they can still be applied today, even with modern materials.

I will leave you with one final quote by Hideyuki Oka : “… what we have lost for sure is what this book is about: a once-common sense of fitness in the relationships between hand, material, use, and shape, and above all, a sense of delight in the look and feel of very ordinary, humble things.”

“How to Wrap Five Eggs – Traditional Japanese Packaging”

By Hideyuki Oka. Photographs by Michikazu Sakai. Weatherhill, an imprint of Shamhala Publications, Inc., 2008. ISBN 978-1-59030-619-2




April. For many months the city has been swathed in layers upon layers of clouds. Muted tones of grey and silver; the pitter-patter of the rain. Now, under the bright new sun, the clouds have dissipated. Birdsong. And street after street, the city is blushing – so many shades of pink, from champagne to shocking, but mostly cherry blossom. These are our Sakura days. We celebrate the cherry blossoms and the arrival of Spring with picnics under the cherry trees, concerts, blossom paintings, and haiku competitions. I took in some of these events two weeks ago:

Van Dusen

Van Dusen cbf

Van Dusen  temple      Cherry Blossom Festival               Cherry branch       

What I enjoy the most is to walk around neighbourhoods, to track the blooms as they progress through the city, to revisit favourite spots or discover new ones.   

sakura walk

There are over a thousand varieties of cherry cultivars here in Vancouver, with names like Kanzan, Ukon, Asagi, Kiku-shidare-zakura ou Atsumori. Look at the English translation of some of these names: 

Shogetsu                     Moonlight on pine trees

Mikuruma-Gaeshi      The royal carriage returns

Ama-no-gawa             Heaven’s river 

Sounds a bit like a haiku, doesn’t it?

Two cherry blossoms

As Spring brings in more blossoms, streets turn pink and white, taking on a new identity. For a while, Graveley Street becomes “Akebono Street”:

Graveley Akebono 1

Some streets are lined with cherry trees so large they arch across and meet. With the sweet scent of blooms in the air and the warm late-afternoon light filtering through the canopy, it feels like walking through a cloud cathedral.    

Graveley arches 1Graveley arches 2

There is so much to experience: colours, striking compositions or patterns of petals on the grass – a rich source of inspiration that can be challenging to capture with a camera or a pen so I can revisit it later in the studio.

But then sometimes, Mother Nature does the designing for us. Fossil coral is a striking stone that, for me, encapsulates perfectly the beauty and the delicacy of cherry blossoms. I bought one a few years ago, a rectangular cabochon in subtle shades of pink, with a detailed flower pattern – a serendipitous find since I was at the time in the throes of one of my sakura walks. Here is a necklace I made with it :

D Brechault - Cherry Blossom necklace

D. Bréchault – “Cherry Blossom” . Necklace. Sterling silver, fossil coral, freshwater pearls. Fabricated, cast.

Fossilized or agatized fossil coral is formed from ancient corals which, over time, were replaced with agate; the cross sections of the coral branches form the flower pattern. It is actually a stone (agate), no longer a piece of endangered coral reef. It is found in various parts of the world and the oldest ones can be as old as 450 million years. This particular one, from Indonesia, is about 20 million years old. They range in colour from tan, to yellow, to pink, to black. With a hardness of about 7 on the Moh’s scale, it is not delicate, and is quite suitable for jewellery making.

Flower pattern on fossil coral

Flower pattern on fossil coral

With the fossil coral as a centrepiece, I wanted to make a necklace that would be as light and ethereal as possible – like blossoms landing softly on your shoulders as your walk under a cherry tree. The setting had to be minimal, discreet, so as not to distract from the intricate flower motif on the fossil coral. I chose a prong setting, which uses a minimum amount of metal to hold the stone in place: a narrow seat at the back and thin prongs on the front, to expose as much of the stone as possible.

Back of setting

Back of setting

The leaf motif is repeated throughout and provides a visual connection between the pendant and the strand of pink freshwater pearls that holds it. On the setting, a small silver branch acts as a claw to clamp the stone. The clasp is a small hook hidden under another branch, and there is a single leaf at the end of the chain on the opposite side that serves as a weight to make the clasp more secure.

Detail of clasp

Detail of clasp

7019 detail of leaf prong

Detail of prong

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just heard that Kiku-shidare-zakura is in bloom a few blocks away, a not-to-be-missed cherry tree with spectacular chrysanthemum-like flowers. I am tickled pink just thinking about it.


Intro photo

Photo: Chris Hadfield/Twitter

It’s almost the middle of March here on the “Wet Coast” of British Columbia, and the rainy season is not over yet. I can’t wait to get out of the house and go for walks in the neighbourhood, in search of inspiration. So in the meantime, for a change of scenery, I read Chris Hadfield’s tweets.

Commander Chris Hadfield. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Commander Chris Hadfield. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Chris Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut, Commander of the International Space Station, and currently orbiting the Earth. He has been tweeting regularly since he arrived on the ISS last December. Test pilot, astronaut, mission specialist, commander of the ISS, etc. etc. I can’t list all of Commander Hadfield’s countless achievements in this post, but you can go to his Wikipedia page for more details. And he is also working on the first music album to be recorded in space. A true Renaissance man.

His tweets give us glimpses, often funny, of his daily life in space – on February 27th, “Just made myself another bag of coffee. One of those mornings, even in space : ) ”. When he gives interviews, it’s always a treat to see him in front of the camera, floating around and playing catch with the mike. I always learn a lot. For instance, how do you clean spills on the Space Station? Well, it involves gloves and rags, just like here on Earth, except, with zero gravity, it’s more fun!

As part of his research work on the Space Station, Chris Hadfield is testing for the Canadian Space Agency a device called Microflow, which, he says, could become “a real Tricorder” – yes, it turns out Commander Hadfield is a Star Trek fan (And so am I, by the way. There, I’ve said it). This device would be used to diagnose medical conditions on Earth and in Space. According to the CSA ,“The portable technology could offer near real-time medical diagnosis for astronauts in space, people in remote communities or in areas affected by natural disasters where medical equipment is not readily available.”

And his pictures of Earth, taken from the windows of the ISS, are…out of this world! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) From his unique vantage point, Chris Hadfield captures images of weather systems and storms hurtling across the skies, or shows how water and wind can slowly reshape the landscape. What I find fascinating is how his photographs reveal the impact that we have on our planet, whether through agriculture, industrialization or urbanization. There are places where the surface of the planet has been cultivated, tamed, and sometimes deeply scarred. There are also, still, some vast empty expanses. And then there are places where millions of us are huddled together:

Manila, Philippines. Photo: Chris Hadfield/Twitter

Manila, Philippines. Photo: Chris Hadfield/Twitter

What is obvious is that we humans share a beautiful home (and with a beautiful view).

Moonrise, March 4. Photo: Chris Hadfield

Moonrise, March 4. Photo: Chris Hadfield/Twitter

Stuck for an idea?

Frottage is a useful technique for finding inspiration when you have “designer’s block”. I learnt about this technique when I was studying jewellery many years ago, and I have been sharing it with my own students ever since.

This technique was developed by the Surrealist painter Max Ernst in 1925. One day, tired of staring at his blank canvas, he was looking at the wooden floor and daydreaming, and the lines and the marks on the floor started morphing into various images. He decided then to lay sheets of paper on the floor and to rub (frottage comes from the French frotter – to rub) the paper over the textured surface with a pencil. From these, Ernst was inspired to create a series of drawings, called Histoire naturelle.

Max Ernst, from “Histoire Naturelle”, 1926.
MoMA, New York

Here is how I channel my inner Max Ernst:

I walk around my studio, or I go outside and “collect” textures. I just rub the surfaces through sheets of paper, randomly. The key is to work fast, without thinking too hard. It does not matter if the patterns overlap.

Rubbings can be found anywhere: on a concrete walkway, a crate, a brick wall, a metal grate, etc. Natural materials (i.e., leaves, bark, etc.) work well too. Tools, kitchen utensils, lettering, anything goes!

Here is my favourite pencil for this, a very fat and very soft pencil (6B):

I use the frottage technique in different ways. Sometimes, I simply look at the patterns on the sheet, until images emerge; this can serve as a point of departure for some ideas or sketches for future jewellery pieces.

Or, if I want to focus more specifically on textures or surface ornamentation – which I love to incorporate in my work – I pick out areas of the rubbings that appeal to me. Almost any pattern can be translated into metal, using various stamping tools, or techniques like etching, roll-printing, cuttlebone casting, etc. So I grab pieces of scrap metal, stamping tools, hammers, and start experimenting. Or some other times, I cut and paste various areas of the sheets and start assembling them to form necklaces, brooches, rings, whatever inspires me. You could also scan the sheets, and manipulate the shapes further with your computer. Again, the key it not to think too much or to worry about how it can actually be made.

This really works. Thank you Max Ernst! Start experimenting, and have fun. And you’ll probably come up with more ways of using the frottage technique.

D. Bréchault : Brooch “Poppies on the Meseta” – Silver, poppy jasper.
Textures made using various techniques: roll-printing, reticulation, stamping.