Photographs courtesy of Studio Jean-Michel
Jean-Michel Andriot claims he’s never played backgammon in his life. He doesn’t know how to surf, either. But he crafts exquisite game boards inspired by his passion for the sea and surf culture.
Working from a small studio in Westhampton Beach, Andriot’s backgammon boards are made from a variety of exotic woods, and pay homage to the world’s most iconic beaches. The Rio de Janeiro board features striking fluorescent miniature surfboards against a backdrop of hand-dyed maple in deep blue with added texture that resembles ocean waves. The Montauk board ripples with the naturally occurring undulating “chatoyance” of the wood, trimmed with South American leopardwood, and wrapped with an insert of butter maple. Andriot, who is represented by the Quogue Gallery and the Noted Gallery in Southampton, says he consults with each client, tailoring the game boards to their lifestyle.
The son of an architect, and the grandson of a woodworker, Andriot spent his formative years exposed to old-style European craftsmanship. He was born on the Cote d’Azur, where the pastel blue waters of the Mediterranean shaped his artistic vision.
"That has really given me a love of the beach and the water; and the sights, sounds, colors, shapes, and textures of the coastline are really a part of my DNA,” he told New York Makers.
In addition to the backgammon boards he makes by special order, he lovingly restores antique furniture at his light-filled studio, which is tucked into a small industrial park on Old Riverhead Road.
He spoke to New York Makers about his inspiration, and the long journey that took him from the French Riviera to the east end of Long Island.
NEW YORK MAKERS: Why backgammon boards? Can you explain your inspiration?
JEAN-MICHEL ANDRIOT: I had wondered, after seeing various friends play the game, about messing around with the format of backgammon — part of my non-conformist side I guess. At the time I was making some home décor pieces, like serving trays, small tables, with different woods, pewter, and hand-painted copper. So I was just experimenting and made the first board with beautiful woods and a pewter inlay square in the middle — which has no purpose in the game, but it was my way of seeing how the two work together. I made points in a teardrop shape, and then had the points “floating” above the board rather than inlaid. It all came together and looked quite nice. And, when that one got a good reception, I just kept creating different designs — and realized that making them brought together my artistic side with my technical woodworking side, and that was key to helping me make things that people appreciate.
NYM: How did you end up in Westhampton?
JMA: Well, actually, I moved to the U.S. to marry my wife, who is American. And one week after I arrived from my sunny climate to Manhattan, where we first lived, there was this record breaking snowstorm...and my family would call wondering if I’d survive or come running back?! Of course, I stayed, but, since I lived by the sea my whole life in a quiet village, Manhattan was really not my fit; for my 10 years in Manhattan, I felt a bit like a “fish out of water”. So, we had been coming out to the Hamptons to visit friends, and I started doing some furniture creation out here, and I felt so much more like myself and so inspired that we decided to move here — and it really changed my outlook and my creativity 100 percent. I couldn’t be happier.
NYM: Your work has a lot of surfing imagery. Were you a surfer in France, or did you learn that here?
JMA: Actually, no — I don’t surf! But living out here in the Hamptons, near the ocean, surfing is definitely a part of the culture — you see surfers and surf shops, and it just kind of seeps into your blood. For me surfboards on backgammon boards were just a fun and a natural way to add some interest to the very traditional game of backgammon. The shape of the surfboard (or paddleboard) works perfectly on a backgammon game and adds a great smile to people playing. That’s what I love most: It’s a serious game, but I want to transport people as well with fun and beautiful interpretations.
NYM: What are the different elements that go into your backgammon boards? How do you make them?
JMA: Many of my boards are commissions, so I start by consulting with my clients to design their perfect board — something that works with their décor, or their passions and interests, or both. I’ve had several clients come to me with photos of their personal surfboards. One client had eight! So I’ve replicated the designs onto the backgammon surfboard points. It makes the pieces so meaningful to the owners. I start everything from scratch. Once my design is settled upon, I then source woods specific to the board. Often I have to look at sites all around the country for exotic woods that have beautiful structure and detail. I use a variety of woods, like Hawaiian Koa, zebrawood, snakewood, olivewood, mahogany. Each one lends a different feel to the board. I then hand cut the playing points and hand decorate them with paint or stain or even a 24kt gold leaf. I create the trim from other exotic woods and sign the board. I then very carefully and slowly apply several layers of resin. This is a really detailed process, and one wrong step can ruin the entire board that I just spent a couple of weeks crafting! Each takes several days in between to dry. The resin makes the board three dimensional, and makes it have a hard glass-like finish.
NYM: After designing so many boards, do you play the game?
JMA: No! You would think I do...But I don’t. For me it’s always been about the design, originality, and craftsmanship of the sets. But my wife and I keep promising each other that we’ll learn to play soon...