Home & Garden

A New Look at the Old Art of Papier-Mâché

The ancient art form experiences a renaissance, with Southerners leading the way

To refer to papier-mâché as a trend may seem strange—especially since the craft dates back thousands of years. But more and more, artists and artisans across the South and beyond are employing papier-mâché to create beautiful home decor pieces and accessories. On a recent trip to Mexico, in fact, I was struck by how current the form feels and how closely it allies with the spirit of reinvention and resilience and resourcefulness often associated with hardscrabble Southern culture and primitive Southern crafts. After all, like quilting, artists form papier-mâché using an otherwise-discarded element (paper) to fashion original designs. 

Those traits drew the Mexico native and current Houstonian Mariana Barran Goodall to seek out papier-mâché accessories for her Hotel Amparo, a getaway spot she dreamed up with her husband, Taylor, in the heart of San Miguel de Allende. “The first thing that often comes to mind about Mexican papier-mâché is color,” Goodall says. “Historically that’s because traditional ‘papel maché’ is used to make pinatas and masks for parades and dances like ‘La Danza de los Viejitos.’ But for the hotel we wanted things to feel comfortable, and adding three china vases in a room would have been too formal. So we created a little twist to make the idea more playful and unexpected by designing huge urns in pure white.”

Goodall isn’t the only Southerner in San Miguel putting a contemporary spin on the medium. For nearly twenty years, the Tennessee-based couple behind Stray Dogs Designs have worked with artisans in San Miguel to turn their quirky renderings into reality, such as they did for their iconic “Crunchberry” plant in glossy white papier-mâché and their nearly five-feet-tall “Mariana” floor lamp in electric citrine:

The artist Mark Gagnon has created a realm all his own when it comes to pulp paper sculpture and paint, too. So much so that Kate Brodsky, a native New Orleanian and daughter of the legendary Southern decorator Suzanne Rheinstein, commissioned Gagnon works for her store KRB NYC. His pieces have also graced the pages of magazines from Architectural Digest to Vanity Fair as well as the windows of Bergdorf Goodman.

There are also deals and finds to be found online, including handmade pieces by Bee Brahm, who uses junk mail as her “paper” base. 

Or you could try your hand at creating something on your own, like Mariana Berran Goodall, whose love affair with papier-mâché started all those years ago when she used glue and paper to craft a piñata not unlike the one below.