The Works: The Automata of François Junod

Every once in a while you come across something so magical, so beguiling, that you feel compelled to see it first-hand. The automata of François Junod is one of those things. Junod’s work has it all – art, physiology, engineering, history, and philosophy, all rolled into objects that can only be described as magic.

Master automatier, François Junod, and his small team create captivating mechanical sculptures in Sainte-Croix, Switzerland

It was September of 2019. We had just finished shooting Real Rail Adventures: Swiss International Hubs for public television (also on Prime Video here). After three weeks of shooting abroad, most of the crew headed home to the U.S., but my wife (and one of our talented videographers on the show), Sherri James, and I stayed on to shoot a few “extras” for a new online series we’re tentatively calling, “The Works.” The idea for the series came from my work on Handmade Music for the DIY Network some years ago. As the networks all began programming nearly 100% reality shows, they left the how-to stuff to migrate to the internet. When Handmade Music was canceled after 40+ episodes, a network executive told me that I should take it online. Well, some years, a few TV series, and a couple of kids later, we’ve finally found some time to bring a few of these to life.

The work that originally led me to Junod was his remarkable “La Fée Ondine,” an exquisite rendering of a nodding fairy with lightly beating wings reclining on an undulating lily pad. A water lily opens and closes, revealing a bejeweled butterfly flitting from its center.

La Fée Ondine, by François Junod

I looked up Junod’s website and contacted him, fully expecting to be rebuffed by a sniffy assistant. To my surprise, Junod himself emailed back. He asked a few questions about our work but was otherwise open to a visit. The man we met was friendly and enthusiastic if a bit distracted by his many ideas and obligations. The day we arrived, he ushered us in, gave us a hasty tour of his atelier and gallery, told us some stories of how he became who he is today, and left us to shoot whatever we liked. No, really. He just turned us loose in his house of wonders. For two days.

During the tour, Sherri gamely tried to follow Junod and me around with her camera-on-a-gimbal setup. His excitement for his work and for the history of clockwork mechanics in Sainte-Croix led him to flit from object to object, winding up a music box here, a gramophone there, getting distracted for a moment, only to have another idea set us off in a new direction. I listened, scribbled notes, and cursed my lack of French. But most of all, I looked on in awe and wonder.

We travel for a lot of reasons, but one of the most important for me is to renew that sense of awe and wonder as we get older and, inevitably, more jaded. The work of François Junod (and the man himself) reminds me to rekindle my own youthful curiosity. I hope it does the same for you.

What travel experiences have moved you? And what artisans and objects should we cover in The Works? Let us know in the comments here and keep an eye out for other videos in the series.

The Works: Soma Sound Sculptures

The Works: Some Sound Sculptures – we visit the village of Rehetobel, Switzerland, to see how handpans are made. Special thanks to Sherri James who shoots the amazing, cinematic video for this series.

Some years ago I was asked to host a show called Handmade Music on the DIY Network. It was a good fit – without the talent of a Carnegie Hall-level musician, my classical piano degree had helped to keep my construction skills up to snuff. I “got” both music and how things were built. Every week, we visited an artisan’s workshop and they led us through the process of creating a one-of-a-kind musical instrument.

The show was more interesting and more fun than any job should be – in it, we covered cajun accordions in Eunice, LA; we shadowed builders at the Chicago School of Violin Making; and got the low-down on Dudenbostel guitars from Lynn himself. Unfortunately, the 40-some episode series eventually came to an end because, I was told by network execs, the audience was only a few hundred thousand die-hard fans. Enough for the interweb, maybe, but not for network television selling ads. Soon after, reality TV subsumed even my beloved DIY Network, and how-to shows went the way of YouTube.

It’s always been in the back of my mind give that series new life as an online entity. If only for my own curiosity, I wanted to get back to seeing artisans practice their hard-won skills to turn raw materials into works of art. I’m tentatively calling this new series The Works.

As a pilot, I couldn’t have asked for a better subject than Daniel Bernasconi of Soma Sound Sculptures. Not only is the process of making his handpans interesting to watch, but the instruments are mystically enchanting when played. With some help from his partner, Ana Paz, and her artistic touches, Daniel’s “flying saucer” handpans become even more stunning with intricately-designed etchings. And Daniel’s story, from banker to traveler to artisan, is inspiring as well. Late in the day, we follow Daniel to a high hill on the edge of Rehetobel where he puts on an impromptu concert, flooding the valley with a meditative, late-afternoon melody.

This is what we hope to achieve with The Works: To tell the stories of artisans and their work, demystifying the processes they use in their creative endeavors, while taking the viewer to new, interesting places. And we’ve decided that while we will cover many musical instruments, we will also seek out other interesting subjects like the second video in our series, where we visit Saint Croix, Switzerland, and the atelier of automata-maker-extraordinaire, François Junod.

Watch, comment, and subscribe. We want to hear what you’d like to see covered in the new series. If you are an artisan or know of someone who creates unique objets d’art, anywhere in the world, let us know – we want to highlight your story! And I’m also open to title suggestions…please weigh in. Enjoy and stay tuned for more!