Creativity
The French Milkman Who Transformed His Home with Broken Pottery and Seashells
La Maison de la Vaisselle Cassée, 2007. Photo by Scott Miller.

La Maison de la Vaisselle Cassée, 2007. Photo by Scott Miller.

French milkman Robert Vasseur made his first piece of art completely unwittingly. In 1952, he repaired a sink in his small Normandy cottage by covering its basin with bits of broken crockery. His wife was pleased with the result, so he decided to keep going.
For the next 50 years of his life, until his death in 2002, Vasseur meticulously blanketed his home in colorful shards of pottery, bright-white seashells, and shimmering fragments of glass. The result: La Maison de Vaisselle Cassée, a whimsical structure crafted from the discards of an entire town, and hatched from the mind of one unrelentingly creative man.
Vasseur was born in 1908 and is said to have never left his native Normandy. There, he married and worked jobs in a textile factory and as a milkman. In 1948, he purchased a little house for his family in the small town of Louviers, not far from France’s northern coast. This home, located on the narrow street of Rue du Bal Champêtre, became Vasseur’s canvas—and remains intact today.
6 Images
View Slideshow
Open Slideshow
From his initial work on the sink, Vasseur gradually covered nearly every surface of the cottage’s interior. The floors became a colorful patchwork of shattered pottery and tile; charming details blossomed across the walls. In some places, like above the bathroom tub, he’d embed full plates into a sea of ceramic shards, outlining them in circles of tiles or shells, like elaborate frames.
In the parlor, he transformed a reserve of seashells into a pattern resembling ornate wallpaper. It served as the backdrop for stools encrusted with glass tiles and shelves hosting Vasseur’s vast collection of figurines. The room, like the rest of the house, resembles a cabinet of curiosities viewed through a kaleidoscope.
As Vasseur’s work spread across his home, the news of his project spread across town. And when they heard he needed more materials, his neighbors began to chip in. As French newspaper L’Express reported in 1994, a local garbageman was the first to begin gifting Vasseur with broken plates foraged in the trash he collected. Then the town’s fishmonger started bringing scallop shells; the bowlers donated empty beer bottles after their matches; and local children gave seashells and starfish foraged from the beach.
La Maison de la Vaisselle Cassée, 2007. Photo by Scott Miller.

La Maison de la Vaisselle Cassée, 2007. Photo by Scott Miller.

Robert Vasseur at his home in Louviers, France, 1992. Photo by Xavier Rossi/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Robert Vasseur at his home in Louviers, France, 1992. Photo by Xavier Rossi/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

This was the fodder Vasseur needed to complete his work. Soon, the massive mosaic began to cover the cottage’s exterior and crept into the garden.
Even today, if you walk down Rue du Bal Champêtre, you’ll see Vasseur’s glistening façade. It’s studded with flowers, bees, crawling vines, and giant butterflies created from inventive arrangements of mussel shells and color-coordinated ceramic fragments. Vasseur even blanketed a dog kennel, a gazebo, and a kinetic fountain.
Vasseur didn’t leave behind much insight into why the project held his interest for 50 years. But a photo captured in 1992 seems to say it all. In it, Vasseur sits on a milk jug in front of one of his creations: a massive mosaic butterfly, with its wings spread wide. Vasseur’s smile is wide, too, as if immensely proud of the work that surrounds him.  
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.