Emile-Allain Séguy was enamored with the overlooked wonders of the natural world. Namely, its insects, from the brilliant wings of butterflies to the less-loved forms of beetles, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and cicadas. In the first three decades of the 20th century, the French Art Deco designer produced 11 pattern albums based on scientific observations of nature, with his colorful swarms used in wallpaper, textiles, and other design.
The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), a consortium of research institutions dedicated to the accessibility of biodiversity archives, recently shared Séguy’s 1920s Papillons, just digitized by Smithsonian Libraries. BHL posted some background on the publication on its blog:
In 1920, the American textile manufacturer F. Schumacher and Co. commissioned the work Papillons, which was to include stunning compositions of butterflies intended for use as wallpaper, textiles, and other interior and fashion design purposes. Referring to scientific illustrations for reference, Séguy reproduced 81 butterflies within 16 compositions, as well as four additional plates of decorative patterns inspired by butterfly wings, using the pochoir technique.
Pochoir is the colorful, labor-intensive technique that characterized Art Deco plates, where each color was crisply applied with an individual stencil. Little is known of Séguy’s life; according to Miami University Libraries, not even his birth or death dates are clearly recorded. This is partly due to ongoing confusion with French entomologist Eugène Séguy.
Insectes, another 1920s work by the artist Séguy, had all manner of antennaed creature, including moths, bees, wasps, and grasshoppers, transformed into patterns. (North Carolina State University has the album digitized.) Séguy was also intrigued by ornithology — his 1929-30 wallpaper featuring kingfishers perched on branches is now at the Cooper Hewitt — and later took an interest in geology, with crystals and coral patterns appearing in his 1930 Prismes (digitized at the Internet Archive).
Séguy was among several Art Nouveau and Art Deco designers inspired by nature. Marine biology illustrations by Ernst Haeckel influenced architect René Binet’s coral-like 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle entrance, and Émile Gallé‘s glass art was often adorned with jellyfish, insects, and botanical forms. But Séguy was especially obsessed with a scientific perspective, pouring over texts on insects, and carefully labeling each butterfly with its name, even when he transformed them into abstract patterns. In his introduction to Papillons, he wrote that “butterflies offer us a sumptuous world of shapes and colors that have rarely been used by artists.”
In 1977, Dover Publications compiled Séguy’s Insectes and Butterflies into Decorative Butterflies and Insects in Full Color. The publishers stated that “Séguy, while confident that butterflies would be readily accepted, made the special plea for the other insects that were constructed like wonderful machines and were thus entitled to the same consideration as an airplane fuselage, an ocean liner or locomotive; nature was a successful industrial designer.” And through his patterns, he attempted to merge the natural with the industrial in Art Deco design.
Emile-Allain Séguy’s 1920s Papillons is digitized in its entirety at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.