Mark de la Vega has one of the more unlikely design success stories imaginable. In 2008, freshly laid off from a job at the retail-design firm Studio Sofield, de la Vega moved to Brooklyn with every intention of opening a taco shop. "I had a lot of experience [in restaurants]," he says. "I had made these really nice business plans. But we couldn't get a loan from the bank. Nobody was getting a loan for anything."
Meanwhile, however, friends had connected de la Vega with—wait for it—Madonna, who ended up commissioning a coffee table from the fledgling designer. (De la Vega has a degree in industrial design from the Art Institute of Colorado, and had done interior and furniture design at Studio Sofield.) De la Vega laid aside his taqueria plans to complete the Madonna piece, which led to other commissions. In 2009, he founded his Red Hook studio, DLV Designs; three years later, he debuted his first collection at ICFF.
A sliding barn door by DLV Designs with the Coquille d'Oeuf finish
Since then, he has relished tinkering with new materials, and one of his signature products has an unlikely story of its own. At Studio Sofield, de la Vega had worked on a Fifth Avenue penthouse once owned by Jacqueline Onassis, with dining room walls veneered with eggshell marquetry trimmed in bronze. In 2009, thinking back to that penthouse, de la Vega picked up a dozen eggs and sat down at the kitchen table with his mother, who was visiting at the time, and the two played around with ways to recreate the Coquille d'Oeuf technique, which was first invented in ancient Vietnam and later revived by the French designer Jean Dunand in the 1920s. "I was trying to put it on with wood glue," de la Vega says. "And then I was filling it in with a joint compound, when finally the idea of using resin dawned on me. That opened a whole other world to me."
Over the years, de la Vega has perfected the technique, which he now has down to a science. Each year, the designer orders 1,800 eggs from a farm in Pennsylvania, which he chose for the integrity of the shells they produce (a lesson he learned the hard way after cheap bodega eggs kept cracking and tearing). "We don't even try to get the food-grade ones—forget it," de la Vega says. "We have them send us their eggs that are past sellable. They just sit on the floor in boxes, because we can't refrigerate them, until we cook them. . . . The smell is pretty horrible."
A table with a crushed-eggshell border
De la Vega hires four or five helpers from Craigslist to assist with production; they begin by stacking the boxes of eggs in the studio's industrial kitchen, where they're hard-boiled in large spaghetti pots. The hard-boiled eggs are then run through a small band saw, slicing them in half vertically, leaving nice, clean orbits. Their insides are scooped out and discarded, with careful attention taken to peel away two membranes lining the inside of the shell that might otherwise discolor or lead to uneven surfaces down the road.
Step one: boil a lot of eggs
The resulting half shells are stacked and placed in large plastic storage boxes from IKEA. Processing the full shipment of eggs takes four to five days. A dozen eggs yield roughly a square foot of paneling, which goes into DLV Designs projects starting at $450—so those 1,800 eggs represent a potential $225,000 or more in product.
One the eggs are cooked, cut and cleaned, they're ready to be used as finishes. Some are put in storage for later projects; the rest are moved to another section of the studio for application onto panels and other pieces. There, a small wheeled cart with a can of spray adhesive, gloves and various X-Acto knives sits next to a flat file overflowing with wax papers covered in eggshells. For each piece, spray adhesive is applied to a section of the paper, and each hemisphere of eggshell is delicately broken and applied to its surface by hand—half guided, half following the shape of the shell. "Nobody knows how to do what we do," de la Vega says. "We've had to train everyone we brought in from the basics. It's hard work."
Applying the cracked eggshells to wax paper
Each eggshell is meticulously adhered, fitting in like a puzzle piece to what has already been laid and then broken to fill any empty spaces. "You start learning how to break them to get triangles and different shapes," de la Vega says. "Will this piece have petals? Sunbursts or fireworks shapes? It's interesting because you try to make this perfect thing, but you always end up with a slice missing and you start trying to fill in that slice." De la Vega says that mastering the process requires "learning how long it takes the glue to dry, how to clean it when you get pulled away and you have to go to something else, how to re-apply. It's very much about the 25 different skill sets that you pick up just trying to accomplish this one thing."
Each worker has his or her own "signature," de la Vega explains, so one person will usually handle an entire commission to keep it looking consistent throughout. "We have to get to a point where we can do a foot an hour, because otherwise, financially, we'll get slaughtered," he says. A large panel, such as for a sliding door, can take up to 80 hours. For those larger fields of paneling, workers build the layer of eggshell on large sheets of wax paper on top of huge wooden tables stacked throughout the space.
A nearly complete panel
Once a swath has been laid and attached to the wax, de la Vega and the workers will examine every inch to look for unattached bits or gaps that might cause bubbles once it's cast in resin. Using tiny brushes and their fingers, they'll clean any additional residue or dirt from the surface. After resin is poured into a mold, the eggshell-coated wax paper is lifted, folded like a taco, and then flipped upside down (so the concave surface is facing the resin) and gingerly placed on top. Air bubbles are released by gently working the wax paper, then poking and sealing larger pockets of air. The entire piece is then placed in a vacuum bag as the resin cures with the eggshells embedded in its surface. "The vacuum bag crunches every inch of it, and it's always terrifying," de la Vega says.
Once it's ready, the wax paper is removed from the surface of the shells, leaving a gummy layer of glue. Any resulting air bubbles in the resin's surface are left unfinished as remnants of the process. "You have to learn to embrace it," de la Vega says. "It becomes part of the character of the piece." Using acetone, the eggshells are cleaned by hand. An orbital sander is used on the surface, and any other light lacquers or sealants are added after that. A recent kitchen backsplash by de la Vega received an additional thin layer of clear resin on top to pass the "spaghetti-sauce test." "We gave them a piece, they put spaghetti sauce on it, and left it on there for a week, and then came back and wiped it off," de la Vega says. "It was perfect."
But after completing several large commissions, de la Vega has begun shifting toward a "less is more" approach. "It's hard for people to wrap their heads around how much labor goes into this," he says. "We're trying to shift from a furniture model to an art and gallery model." With smaller works that put the focus on the technique, the designer hopes he can lower the amount of labor necessary while still adding unique details to his designs. As examples, De la Vega points to a black coffee table with a white eggshell detail in the shape of a circle, which will retail for $20,000, and a mirror with an eggshell frame that he plans to sell for $10,000.
In the meantime, de la Vega is happy to divulge the details of his process, because he knows that the level of difficulty is so high that there's little risk of others ripping it off. "There's no real way to romance out a mistake," de la Vega says. "You have to get every step right or you've totally messed up a ton of work and money. That's why I don't even mind sharing this process—to anyone who wants to copy it, good luck!"