Most Asked Questions Regarding the Life & Work of Lea Stein. By Bruna Harrison.
Most Asked Questions | Regarding the Life & Work of Lea Stein.
Of all the unique and wonderful pieces that make their way into our tiny little treasure chest of a store in Sydney's Double Bay, the questions most asked are about Lea Stein and her unique pieces, so I have personally put together some relevant information both for the avid collectors or for anyone thinking of purchasing a piece just because you like them, but are not sure what they are about.
A Brief History
Lea Stein was born in France in 1936, her parents were Jewish refugees from Poland. Lea grew up and was educated in Paris, France.
She had a natural talent for drawing and design, however, due to the war years was unable to pursue a career in this area and found work in office's to see her through.
She later met her husband Fernand, they began to work together and created their own business in 1958 making buttons and buckles. In the business they started, Fernand began to experiment and discover unique ways of using cellulose acetate. He and Lea mastered the use of this material using their skills to make these belt buckles, buttons and very simple jewellery.
They experimented further, Fernand began to utilise multi-layering of the cellulose acetate sheets as a way of creating texture colour and a three-dimensional illusion. This layering led to interesting possibilities for making figurative creations by juxtaposing graphics and materials against a fanciful, colourful whimsy.
Lea's inspiration came from poetry and literature as well as objects, characters, animals and nature.
Lea was now able to use her gift of design and drawing to create her famous images, and so they became a team working together from then to this day a working partnership spanning 5 decades.
The Laminating Process
The laminating of cellulose acetate (or, rhodoid) sheets was completed by layering very thin sheets of the cellulose acetate to form a "multi-coloured sandwich of plastic" each sandwich was baked for a period of time, then cooled and cut into shapes. This process could take as long as 6 months. This technique allowed Lea to insert different fabrics (such as brocades and lace), colours and textures into the plastic to create her images. The insertion of the fabrics is most evident in her images of the 'fairy'.
Each brooch has a distinctive V-shaped metal clasp inscribed with 'Lea Stein Paris'. Vintage brooches were generally heat mounted into the plastic. In more modern brooches, the clasps are riveted on.
Further to the variations of signing; bangles, stretch bracelets and the famous snake bangles do not have a metal V instead the name Lea Stein is usually heat stamped on the inside of the piece, this is often not visible to the naked eye sometimes due to the dark colours or intricate pattern. You may need a magnifying glass to see the stamp or you may be able to feel the indentation with the finger. (See pictures below)
Lea Steins most famous image, without a doubt, is the three-dimensional fox, otherwise known as 'Renard' (French for fox), many of the images are named in French.
In a conversation I once had with Fernand Stein, he explained that the snake bangle is the most difficult and tedious to make, this is due not only to the shape itself but the bending of the material to form a bangle.
I once asked Lea about her favourite image, for her, it is the 'Fairy'.
This is also intricate and difficult to make.
Individuality of Pieces
You will hear that all Lea Stein pieces are individual and one of a kind. To a large extent this is true, however often, the difference is in the detail of the pattern, texture and colour. For example, you may see 2 or 3 black foxes and on closer examination, you may find the eyes differ in colour, or the texture of the material is varied or even the shape may differ slightly, remembering they are all individually hand made, this in itself will give individuality and uniqueness to the piece.
I have pictured two foxes below so you can see the shape and actual colours are the same, however, if you take a closer look at the pattern you will immediately see the difference.
A Word of Caution
On purchasing a genuine Lea Stein piece it is now necessary to be aware of copies and non-authentic signatures. Even on becoming familiar with the authentic pieces, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the real and the fake.
It is of utmost importance to purchase only from a reputable dealer.
On a Personal Note
As I have had the pleasure and honour of knowing and dealing with Lea and Fernand Stein personally over many years, I hope this brief article has given you some insight into their life and work.
So when next you choose to purchase one of these tiny works of art, keep in mind it's all about the piece you are attracted to, or as some people say the piece that talks to you. There is really no piece better than the other, the same workmanship, attention to detail love and care have gone into every piece.
And rest assured your money has been well spent. With care, they will last forever, giving yourself and others pleasure each time you wear it.
As for me, I'm often asked which are my favourite images, sorry! I am unable to answer this question. Whenever I think I have come upon a favourite, another pops up to take its place. I now know better than to limit myself as I love all of her work.
Happy Collecting (and wearing)
Below is an extract of an interview with Lea Stein, which I included in a lecture I gave on the life and work of Lea Stein in 2014 at Art Gallery of South Australia.
Bruna Harrison - What is the one thing that keeps you going, to continue to create and make these beautiful unique pieces?
Lea Stein - Do I need a reason to keep going if I love what I do? I don't think about it, I just do it.
B - Does your family help, are they involved at all?
LS - Yes they are involved in various aspects of the business. My daughter is an architect and helps with the drawings, and my two sons help to run the business. I have 10 grandchildren and they all help at one time or another.
B - In terms of your business, when was the most difficult time for you and Fernand?
LS - In 1981 times became difficult for us financially, I had to sell off a lot of my pieces for very little money, however, we worked hard to rebuild our business and overcame our difficulties. We always owned our own business, although it has been rumoured otherwise.
B - You mentioned that you gained inspiration from many sources? When you finally decide on a potential image what is your next step?
LS - The image is born out of a discussion with my husband Fernand. He is the one who makes the construction possible, we then both work together to make the image come to life.
B - Will you ever retire from this work?
LS - As I say, I love what I do why would I stop? I will work in this way for as long as I am able to. One should always continue to do what they love, and I love what I do.