Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum, London, is the latest exhibition that showcases the crystal producer's intimate relationship with emerging and established design talent. Nadja Swarovski gives us a tour.
“We’ve created a reputation so that young talent seeks us as well as we also seek young talent,” says Nadja Swarovski referring to the emerging names featured in Swarovski’s latest cutting edge design initiative, Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum, an exhibition in London which opened last week and which runs until 13 January, 2013. “It makes Fredrikson Stallard seem incredibly established but when we first worked with them five years ago they were the young kids on the block.”
Positioning her family company – the world’s largest producer of crystal – as an incubator of cutting edge talent is just one of Nadja Swarovski’s accomplishments highlighted at the London exhibition. Most impressive of all is the fact that Swarovski is so closely associated with contemporary design that is was invited to collaborate with the museum at all. “I personally believe that creative expression is one of the most valuable gifts that all of us possess but few of us know how to realise. Designers certainly know how to do that,” explains Nadja of why she steered the company into projects such as Swarovski Crystal Palace which each year invites designers to reinvent the chandelier for an exhibition at Milan’s Salone del Mobile. “It is designers who are sitting on the zeitgeist, who have the biggest sensitivity towards trends.”
At Digital Crystal, fourteen designers were asked to explore the future of memory in the digital age. Their responses range from Marcus Tremonto’s 3D holographic table (“Stunning and cutting edge. What a forward thinker he is,” says Nadja) to Maarten Baas’ simple structure of a person in a house (“What he is saying is that the digital age is stripping us of material possessions and that the only thing that’s left really is your thoughts”).
It is telling that Nadja, who is considered a talented businesswoman as well as a creative forece, refers to several of the pieces in Digital Crystal as a “breakthrough” for Swarovski in terms of product development. “Every time we work with a designer we learn so many more techniques, technologies, we’re pushing our boundaries and actually expanding our capabilities.”
Much more than what would be a brilliant marketing strategy, there is real value in Swarovski’s operations at the cutting edge of design. “Anything we do in terms of this sort of exhibition I consider as haute couture which will eventually trickle down into a commercial product,” says Nadja. “It’s always a symbiotic situation. We are here to support the designers yet what they’re giving us in return is their vision and their creativity.”
What is your definition of luxury?
Quality. It’s not the monetary value that’s attached to something but the quality with which it has been created or of which it consists. Whether it’s the quality of the design, the quality of the material or the quality of the thought process that has been invested in something.
Long before it became de rigeur for luxury brands to become involved in the design world, Swarovski was commissioning spectacular pieces – where did your relationship with cutting edge design begin?
I’m actually an art history buff and I come for the art world. I studied art. I worked at Sotheby’s and Gagosian gallery. Obviously there was always a curiosity about design. Eventually, when working with Swarovski, my vision was originally to reintroduce Swarovski into the world of fashion. But I needed someone to help me with that and that person was Isabella Blow. Isabella shared my vision to reintroduce Swarovski into the forefront of fashion. She introduced me to Philip Treacy, Alexander McQueen, Julian Macdonald… We created a blueprint: seeing these designers using the product in a very cutting edge way and making it very relevant made me realise that it is the designers who are sitting on the zeitgeist, who have the biggest sensitivity towards trends and who will be the translators of a traditional brand into a modern brand. Of course, Swarovski is also in the jewelry industry and there we used the same equation: we worked with cutting edge jewelry designers to modernise the product. And then yet another category was the lighting and interior design arena where we worked with designers on the specific brief to reinvent the chandelier. This situation evolved by chance but eventually the various different industries started to associate Swarovski crystal truly as a creative ingredient within fashion, or jewelry or architecture.
You have become known for promoting young talent. How would you describe your relationship with new designers?
Incubator or catalyst. With Digital Crystal we’re working with a very young guard of product designers and architects like Philippe Malouin, Anton Alvarez, Troika, Random International, Hilda Hellstrom. It makes Fredrikson Stallard seem incredibly established but when we first worked with them five years ago they were the young kids on the block. It’s amazing to see the evolution within each and every industry. I remember that Alexander McQueen was this very poor but cutting edge designer that no one had really heard of – things certainly have changed for him. We’re actually supporting Phillip Treacy’s fashion show at London Fashion Week this season. He hasn’t had a fashion show in ten years so it’s really great that he’s coming back on the scene very strong. It’s always a symbiotic situation. We are here to support the designers yet what they’re giving us in return is their vision and their creativity. We’ve created a reputation so that young talent seeks us as well as we also seek young talent.
You are renowned in the creative world for giving designers almost carte blanche in terms of artistic freedom – what do you think that achieves?
I personally believe that creative expression is one of the most valuable gifts that all of us possess but few of us know how to realise. Designers certainly know how to do that. For Swarovski it’s not about making the designer fit into our mould but about magnifying the personality and style of the designer which in my mind is supporting their creative expression. All the designers get the same brief depending on the project but the results are totally different one from another. We want to encourage that individualism because that again emphasises that crystal is actually a creative ingredient in that designer’s work. But crystal doesn’t dictate their work. We’re just an enabler. That is a position that I like taking.
Your latest project is Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum. What do you consider the most exciting commissions for this exhibition?
It’s like your choice of friends – they’re all totally interesting but you like them for different reasons.
I have to say that the piece by Hilda Hellstrom is absolutely incredible. Obviously the angle for this exhibition was digital and memory. What Hilda did was take a Google map photograph of the topography of Wattens, Austria, which is where the company is based. She’s taken this photograph, created a mould and then poured various different resins and plastic into the moudd. Then the mould was glued together with the same form that we did in crystal. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of the plastic which is dense and opaque versus the crystal which is totally transparent and clear. In terms of product development it was a real breakthrough for us.
Philippe Malouin has a super simple structure: a cross made with wires and strung beads. However, the cross is spinning and is in a frame which is lit from inside with LEDs, so the only thing you see is a circle. It’s a completely simple structure but once the movement and lighting is added, it looks like something totally different. It reminds me of a Damien Hirst structure but in movement.
Hye-Yeon Park, a Korean designer, created a crystal circle then cut the circle as you would cut a cake. When you take the individual pieces out you realise it’s the outline of a bear. Then she juxtaposed the crystal with the same shape made in white marble. So as you cut them out you have these little white bears. Again, in terms of product development this was totally cutting edge for Swarovski.
What’s fascinating is that Maarten Baas had a totally different approach to the other designers. The younger designers are very high tech. Maarten Baas depicts the digital age in combination with memory by having a little shape of a person in a house called The Thought Cloud. What he is saying is that the digital age is stripping us of material possessions and that the only thing that’s left really is your thoughts.
Swarovski’s commissions are at the heart of the design/art debate – where do you stand on that?
I think that border is becoming thinner and they’re merging. Of course, artists and designers would not think that same way simply because the education is totally different and also the means for expression is different. Often, artists purely want to express themselves versus designers purely want to create. And there’s slight different in that. I find sometimes in art that it’s frustrated self expression, so sometimes the artwork one sees isn’t necessarily positive. Whereas the willingness to create is truly attached to the positive emotion because it’s about construction and creation so inherently it has a very positive connotation to it.
Architecture and design is clearly a personal passion but you are also renowned as a talented businesswoman – how do projects such as Digital Crystal inform your business?
As a business you have to be able to create a product that’s relevant to the consumer but that also means creating exhibitions that are relevant to our time. That’s why I picked the topic of how the digital era is impacting us. Also, anything we do in terms of this sort of exhibition I consider as haute couture which then eventually will trickle down into a commercial product. These haute couture exercises actually really challenge our development department. Every time we work with a designer we learn so many more techniques, technologies, we’re pushing our boundaries and actually expanding our capabilities. What we might have learnt in a project like Digital Crystal we then can implement in a very commercial product. The bottom line counts but between the vision and the bottom line there’s so much creativity that makes the bottom line happen.
What do you collect personally?
I have some Crystal Palace chandeliers by Tord Boontje. I’m very proud of them because I worked with Tord on them and I adore Tord. It’s nice to have a piece of a friend. I also have some pieces by Marc Quinn, I have a marble table which is inlaid with lapis lazuli. It’s a limited edition, one of eight. I also have a Marc Quinn photograph my daughter’s eyeball for his eye series. She has blue eyes with a little speck of brown. It’s such a fascinating landscape that eyeball! Knowing Marc and it being a personal commission makes it so much more fun. Then I have some photographs of Adam Fuss who is a New York-based photographer. I have photographs by him of my children as babies lying in a Petri dish. It’s modern art but it’s actually my children – portraiture of the 21st century!
I have some Arik Levy rock coffee tables with brushed stainless steel. I have some Damien Hirst prints. I’m starting with the prints – you have to have goals! In my office I have a photograph by Mary McCartney of The Beatles crossing the zebra crossing. Then I have a little sketch by Monsieur Lacroix of a ballerina. We worked with him on a ballet in Paris last year. A little sketch by Zaha Hadid which I framed. I have a model by Marc Newson which is so beautiful I’ve displayed it as a kind of work of art. These kind of things that are personal souvenirs then become my treasured artwork.
I have pieces by people that I know, that I care about and admire so much. I find their work projects so much joy and a very positive vibe of creativity.
Digital Crystal: Swarovski at the Design Museum, London
September 5 – January 13, 2013