Written by Sylvie Belmond

Michel Arbaut {artist}“I can make anything people want me to make,” says European woodworker Michel Arbaut.

The 77-year-old artisan has spent the last 50 years remodeling homes and making custom furniture for clients that include Robert Redford and James Whitmore.
He’s created display cases for the Norton Simon museum in Pasadena and fashioned maple wood kitchen counters for architect John Lautner. Frank Gehry, who designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall, is another of Arbaut’s satisfied clients. “All my customers become good friends,”
Arbaut says.
The master craftsman is not limited to a single style. His creations include a Formica desk depicting Einstein’s formula E=mc2 for artist Nancy Dwyer and a 7-foot-tall red-and-white wooden rocket desk for the son of Paul Mitchell, the hair care product mogul.
Client Megan Morrow of North Ranch says Arbaut did some beautiful work in her home. In addition to building a corner desk with shelves for her son’s room, the artisan made stylish handcrafted birch doors for two hallway linen closets.
“The cabinet doors are gorgeous,” Morrow says. “Everything was done by hand. He has some good ideas about how to integrate it all and put it together.”

Arbaut built an ornate chair with animal print cushions for a jeweler in Beverly Hills.

Arbaut built an ornate chair with animal print cushions (above left) for a jeweler in Beverly Hills. His vast body of work includes dream beds and thought-provoking wall art but Arbaut is just as comfortable tackling large construction projects and has completed whole home remodels and outdoor structures as well. Unlike most modern woodworkers who use prefabricated parts, Arbaut is “old school,” Morrow says. “He does everything himself by hand. He uses raw materials and can shape that wood into anything.”
Arbaut has also been commissioned to construct secret passageways, usually hidden behind a bookshelf with a concealed knob. One client
was so proud of his hidden door that he showed it to every guest, defeating the purpose.
The son of a French woodworker, Arbaut learned the craft as a boy inside his father’s woodworking studio in Enghien les Bains on the outskirts of Paris. At 10, he created footstools and flowerpot shelves, which he sold to local women for pocket money.
After finishing an apprenticeship with his father, Arbaut enrolled at the Arts et Métiers vocational school in Paris to refine his skills. He married his first wife, Arlette, in 1959. In 1962, the young couple left Europe and moved to Malibu. Arnaut was 23.
“I couldn’t even speak one word of English, and two weeks later I
found a job,” says Arbaut, who quickly built a steady clientele for his unique creations.
Not long after, he built his own house and woodshop in Malibu.
After Arlette’s death, Arbaut met Suzy Bidegaray-Bailly. In 1997, they were married. Today the couple shares a design shop in Westlake Village where Suzy Arbaut creates fashion jewelry. Her business, called Mon Bijou, raises funds for the nonprofit Pablo’s Friends that helps orphaned street children in Mexico.
Michel and Suzy Arbaut live in the Cornell area of the Santa Monica Mountains. Arbaut built their kitchen out of recycled materials. He used various granite and marble remnants for the kitchen counter, crafted the drawers out of wine boxes, and made 2-by-12-foot shelves out of scaffolding boards. The end result is a unique, artful and practical space.
After nearly seven decades working with wood and other materials, Arbaut, who has two grown children and five grandchildren, is still eager to take on new, challenging projects that test his creative skills.
“I love when people come with projects that are complicated,”
he says.


Photograph by Richard Gillard