In the deep countryside of France,
there lives an artist who makes tiny objects of ceramics.
These seemingly simple and “insignificant” objects
hold infinite possibilities of imagination and creativity.
They are hand-shaped one by one, to adorn the “royal robes” of pristine couture houses.
And they are magical works of art born from porcelain.
Fortunately, they do not take up too much space.
And he is fine with that.
At the end of this story,
there awaits an intriguing short film
of how a porcelain button is made.
Is a Story
A story of journeys.
It is a story of a universe inside tiny porcelain buttons.
It is a story of the endless potential
embodied in simple objects that often escapes our eyes.
Its story is intertwined, with a story of a man’s life journey, and how he became the finest artisan by following his heart despite life’s difficulties, ups and downs, moments of haves and have nots, and how that lead him to be exactly where he needed to be.
It is also a story that chronicles a button’s journey and how it comes into being, from a lump of clay, to the finest jewel-like miniature work of art.
Inside a Button
of firing, fusing, vitrifying.
of an ancestral savoir-faire.
to come into existance,
of hands that crafted them.
that marks their beauty.
of colors, textures, shapes.
of crackled earth and vegetations.
of geometry and patterns.
that grace a beautiful robe.
of a tiny fragment of earth.
There lives an artist who elaborates the buttons,
piece by piece.
Each one is hand-stamped.
Hands orchestrate the pigments, enamels, lusters, and crystals.
It is the hands that work.
There is no machine.
They are miniature pieces born
from a know-how in ceramics
that is also a sister to jewelry craft.
When made by hand,
each one is unique.
They retain their soul,
they transmit beauty,
they celebrate imperfection,
and they have a story to tell.
“Porcelain is a clay with memory.
Even a little shock, even if our naked eyes do not see it, she remembers.
At the moment of firing, we see the result of her memory.”
Speaking of porcelain’s memory,
she remembers her birth in France.
A long, long time ago,
in the Limousin region in France, kaolin was discovered.
Along came elaborations of porcelain,
a luxurious ceramic befitting royalties such as Napoleon.
master artisans crafted buttons that were miniature masterpieces with fantastical scenes, magical shapes, opulent materials–
transforming the small and precious objects into storytellers.
In our day,
to have buttons of porcelain adorning one’s costume is a sure sign of luxury.
In our day,
this artist is the last in France
to preserve and transmit this
rare and precious savoir-faire
in buttons born from porcelain.
Each piece is a sculpture.
Each piece awakens imagination.
Each piece makes us dream.
of an Artist
The Artist = Yann Pétillault, the master artisan
The Friend from Paris = Jacques Hurel, a parurier
The Couturier = Yves Saint-Laurent
The Houses = haute couture fashion houses
Here is a story of how a man stumbled upon a very peculiar trade unbeknownst to many.
Life wanted The Artist to bring extraordinary beauty to something so extraordinarily small.
Life wanted The Artist to stay simple-hearted, yet master the intricate handcrafting of magnificent ceramic miniatures named “buttons.”
And it was all just happenstance.
“I did not have any training –
just a young man living in Paris.
No plans, no particular ambition.”
One day, The Artist met an older couple.
Both potters from Cher,
he made large pottery pieces,
she sold them in the market.
They said to The Artist,
“Come and work with us.”
One day in the market,
a woman asked the potter,
“Could you make me some buttons?”
What a peculiar request to a potter who made
large pottery pieces!
So onward they went,
The Artist and the older couple,
with just rolling pin for dough in hand, porcelain, oven, fire,
and their willing hearts.
With these simple ingredients,
they shaped and baked their very first buttons.
“There was no mold.
We just sculpted the buttons by our own hands.
There were no fancy tools.
With just rolling pin and cookie-cutters on hand,
we made buttons, as one makes pasta!”
their technique evolved,
their savoir-faire ripened,
their range blossomed.
“We presented at Paris salons.
We tasted our success.”
Their atelier grew, then it folded.
The Artist resurrected it again,
then it folded again.
Such is life.
And life sometimes takes us far,
far away from who we are.
The Artist went from working
with hands, to working with numbers, math and sales.
“I was so far from who I am.
Realizing I was not made for this,
I took the leap, quit everything,
and ended up with nothing,
with family to feed.”
It was a difficult period.
Yet, those moments in life
are moments of enlightenment.
They redirect our inner compass
and help us see our heart.
Then one day,
A much-needed miracle happened.
A long-lost Friend from Paris,
a parurier who created accessories and jewelry
for The Houses, called for The Artist.
“Your work interests me.
Make a collection for me.
Bring a breath of fresh air.
Bring your creativity.
And let’s push the limits.”
Even without an atelier,
and years without practice,
The Artist’s heart knew immediately,
that this was it.
began the Artist’s entry into the world of couture,
and the genesis of working with The Houses.
Every day was alive with experiments.
Every day was colors, ideas and innovation.
“Couture always looked for novelty.
So we seized the chance to do things we had never done before!
The sky was the limit.”
Over time, the Artist’s signature style and language blossomed and flourished.
The Artist’s work also caught
the eyes of The Couturier.
And The Couturier loved The Artist’s work.
Thus, began another fruitful path in the journey.
Life gave The Artist
And he seized it wholeheartedly.
Eventually, his Friend from Paris closed his atelier.
Finally, even The Couturier closed his House.
Such is the ebb and flow of life.
Finding himself in difficulty again,
The Artist returned to the
middle of France where he made his very first buttons.
The original site of the atelier before construction. Photo: Courtesy of Yann Petillaut
Little by little,
he started to rebuild.
The atelier came into place.
Knowledge of his savoir-faire spread.
Orders started trickling in.
And the door of another House flung open.
This time, it was the door of the big “C”
(whose name we dare not mention!)
The Artist continued to cultivate
his prolific canvas of ceramics.
To this day,
he is happily immersed in his mastery.
of a Porcelain Button
Just as a human life is a journey,
a button of porcelain
also travels many paths,
It is born from an elaborate
journey that can take up to 25 different steps!
It also endures many evolutions
and transformations to become itself.
And one can never fully control
what will come out on the other side.
That, is the beauty of it all.
( 3-min. short film )
At the end of the day,
behind this very particular story
of very particular porcelain buttons,
is the story of The Artist.
And embodied in his story,
is a universal story
that tells the kaleidoscopic tale
of a life journey
of decisions, difficulties, luck,
a calling, determination,
jumping into the unknown,
following the heart,
coming back to oneself,
and the beauty of that journey.
Yann Petillault is an artist and master craftsman working in the medium of ceramics, and based in the Centre-Val de Loire region of France. A longtime partner of haute couture fashion houses, his work has adorned collections of designers including Yves Saint-Laurent, Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Sonia Rykiel, Lacroix, Balmain, Ungaro, Féraud, Lanvin and Mazzucchelli. His unique craftsmanship has been recognized by the national label “Entreprise de Patrimoine Vivant” (EPV) which is a prestigious attribution granted to finest French artisans. An artistic passion led Yann to master diverse techniques from ceramic miniatures to larger pieces. Today, it is quite rare to find someone with his skill and mastery of the various steps of porcelain production that are grounded in ancestral techniques.
Mona Kim is the Founder and Editor of Moowon magazine. As the Creative Director of award-winning multidisciplinary design studio, Mona Kim Projects, she has been conceiving public space experiences and large-scale experiential projects for global brands and cultural institutions. Her museum and exhibition design for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, World Expo, Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã), and UNESCO-sponsored projects, gave her the opportunity to document and be exposed to some of the most distinctive examples of social realities and cultural expressions. On these projects, she had co-curated world issues such as endangered languages, cultural diversity and sustainability. The Moowon project is an extension of this background. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, WWD(Women's Wear Daily), The Creative Review, and in publications by Gestalten and The Art Institute of Chicago.