The marble touch
Architect Reuben Lautier is going that extra mile, or in his case, millimetre, as he continues to carve out a delicate niche in his passion for natural stone, designing his first collection of statement, slick and sleek marble works. He tells Fiona Galea Debono about his journey to the creation of a synergy between craftsmanship, art and design, and the shape of things to come.
Reuben Lautier may have had another design in life when he graduated as an architect 10 years ago. But his father’s sudden death one month later changed that and he immediately plunged into the running of the one-man-band marble business he left in his wake.
A decade later, however, things are really taking shape for the 33-year-old architect and civil engineer; Lautier is now carving his niche – in the literal sense of the word – reaching a stage in his career where he can experiment with his passion for marble and genuinely enjoy it.
“Back then, it was not really my intention to run the company. I wanted to pursue my studies overseas,” Lautier admits. But today he is finally reaping the fruits of that responsible decision.
In truth, it has not taken him too long to get to where he wants to be – to give his creative flair free rein. He may have spent the first three years installing kitchen tops every Saturday, but that is now history.
And anyway, he does not talk about regrets. “I had the choice to close down...”
But instead, here he is, sitting in the office he took over and grew; and he feels he is finally in the position to delve into other areas and be able to “play on the creative side of natural stone” – his passion.
Lautier is surrounded by marble touches that entice even the least interested to run their fingers along the smooth surfaces and feel the various finishes. His backdrop is dark, polished slabs; behind him is a low Japanese tea table; and in a corner a subtle tea box.
On an elaborate, hand-carved mantelpiece are two urns, resembling apples. Lautier is “hooked” on these: they materialised exactly as he had envisaged them and pushed him to continue creating items for his first collection that was launched last weekend.
Objets en pierre naturelle, as the exhibition is named, includes about 20 pieces, which come wrapped in tastefully raw wooden boxes for the complete package. Lautier’s trademark attention to detail means he has given equal importance to that, going for the end-to-end product.
Work on the contemporary chess board, with a modern twist, started back in 2010. It is much larger than the standard version and can double as a coffee table.
It was the “obvious” marble work to create, he says, moving on to the pestle and mortar, followed by his sleek porfido tray.
These objets are where his passion really lies and he intends to fly with it. In fact, he is capitalising on the skills his company already employs to bring out the “creative stuff”; to be cutting edge, rather than just cutting marble.
Lautier has worked on several projects and properties over the years, but his marble business reached a turning point over the last three, with the influx of skilled workers of various levels, including a fine arts graduate, a graphic designer from Italy and a team of young architects.
“A skill is a skill. It does not change. Even the tools are still traditional, albeit slightly more fine-tuned. But, yes, they could actually die out because of the introduction of new machinery,” he warns. That is what he is fighting and he has armed himself with the means to do so.
Pointing at the sleek, statement centrepieces, meant to display fruit, fresh flowers, or cheeses, or simply stand alone in all their elegant simplicity, he explains they are so shallow they cannot be produced by what is known as a CNC cutting machine.
The detailed, eclectic-style mantelpiece, for example, was designed for his Valletta home, a British-built, 120-year-old apartment, and he wanted to keep it in line with its contemporary-classic environment.
Although it was created by hand and took a whole year, Lautier knows it could so easily be copied using a CNC machine. “But it would be horrible,” he maintains.
“Unfortunately, everyone is getting machine-made imitations of classics from China.”
But China is a far cry from the workshop where Lautier practically grew up. Taking over could almost have been considered a natural progression. After all, every summer as a kid, he worked with his father as a “normal employee”, cutting, finishing and edging marble.
With his first-hand experience and hands-on knowledge, it is not surprising he gets involved in the techniques to create his designs, using his eye for detail to tweak the end product.
And the beauty of it all is that he can go from an idea in his mind to the real McCoy in a matter of a week. If a centrepiece concept, for example, germinates, he can just sketch it and manufacture it there and then.
In the case of architecture, things take much longer of course. And today, Reuben juggles between that and the natural stone workshop, although the two are connected and do live in harmony.
Nevertheless, designing his collection was a breath of fresh air for him and a break from the stress of the job.
Art is a major element of his work and Lautier also used to paint, but natural stones are his medium, in particular Bianco Carrara, the greyish-white, classical material, which has been used for sculptures from Roman times and the days of Michelangelo.
“And we are still getting results from it. It is workable and compact,” he says, having chosen it for his urns.
Lautier is constantly experimenting with finishes, and the urns are, in fact, polished inside, with an acid wash on the outside.Carrara marble is one of the cheapest materials, he admits, and the manufacturers get more money if they sell it for toothpaste, rather than as slabs
“But it is not just about using the most expensive stones. It’s about good quality and creating something special,” Lautier insists. “I keep dreaming, reading books, travelling and researching different materials, finishes and ways to carve.”
It all started because “I just wanted to see what I could do”. But the sky is the limit and when asked what item he dreams to have manufactured out of marble, his immediate answer is: “Everything!”
On deeper reflection, Lautier says he has always wanted an outdoor bed of marble for summer, with a white, double curved surface, which could be versatile and used as a dining table too.
He also plans to sell his marble works through high-end outlets and one day open a whole shop of his designs. Eventually, he intends to have more collections and showcase them abroad too.
We’ll catch up with him in another 10 years’ time... though I have a feeling his plans could take concrete – or should we say marble – shape sooner.