I’m wearing a classic Casio number – black exterior, digital face; picked up for less than a tenner at Argos possibly a decade ago – while the man in front of me has, from what I can gather, a naked wrist below his shirtsleeve. “Not every day,” he’ll clarify when I ask about his watch wearing habits, “but I do have several.” Director of The Design Museum since 2006, Deyan Sudjic is part responsible for the institute’s recent relocation from Shad Thames to its current address in West London, a move that has prompted dramatically increased visitor numbers in a seriously short space of time; to my great shame, our meeting marks my first appointment with the new building.
Today though, figures and footfall take a backseat, as we’re brought together instead to discuss the museum’s new Cartier collaboration: Cartier in Motion. Curated by the architect Norman Foster – Sudjic is co-curator, while Pascale Lepeu, Curator of the Cartier Collection and Pierre Rainero, who heads up the French brand’s Heritage Department have similarly played significant roles – the exhibition explores the invention of the modern wristwatch alongside the luxury house’s approach to watchmaking; aviation, stilt like furniture and 20th century Paris here also king.
When we were working on moving into this building, we knew that we had to present design in a different way; we hadn’t had our permanent collection on show in Shad Thames, but here we always knew that the top floor would be an introduction to design in a fresh, distinctive way – we see it as looking at design not chronology or as at the greatest hits of design, but looking at it from the point of view of Designer Maker User, and one of the things that we wanted to show was the watch and its meaning, so Alex Newson, the curator, made the first connection with Cartier’s people.
Cartier had a long history of working with museums to do, especially curated looks at their history, their heritage and what they’re about, and the more the conversation went on the more interesting the idea became of doing something with them about the watch became. They have their watchmaking, well factory’s not quite the right word, in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, and that’s got a huge connection with the history of architecture, so going there and realising that this tradition was still there was fascinating, and then I also found in this digital pixelated world there is still a kind of hunger for material things, the analog world, and the watch kind of does that beautifully, and watching how a contemporary version of craft takes place got me very interested.
Did you know much about Cartier’s story before you started the project?
Not enough really. Yes, one knows the name of course – one knows the history – but really to understand what was beneath the surface was fascinating; going to see the archive that they have in Paris, there’s something rather amazing about going to the Rue de la Paix, there are people – the shop floor, exquisite customer service – but upstairs there are people making things, and then there’s somewhere else where the collection of glass negatives – they documented everything – the plasterwork, the notebooks, the pavement drawings; it’s just such an extraordinary story, you can’t help but respond to that.
What was the most interesting thing you learnt?
I had no idea that Gustav Eiffel and Louis Cartier and Alberto Santos-Dumont were friends, and I had no idea that Alberto Santos-Dumont was so keen to enthuse other people with the joys of manpowered flight that he had dinner parties in his apartment at which, specially constructed high rise furniture took place; we’re actually going to replicate that within the exhibition.
Yeah I read about that.
Well basically, he had a very high ceiling in his apartment in the Champs Elysee and he would actually invite people for dinner – the furniture was so high that you would almost touch the ceiling. And also he went nightclubbing in his own personal balloon.
Sounds amazing. So, is this The Design Museum’s first exhibition focusing exclusively on watches?
It is, although, I mean we’ve got watches in the collection, and I think it’s not just about watches it’s about Cartier’s connection with precision, with motion – the titles says it all.
Totally. That said, watches are unique in that they’re, usually at least, designed with both functionality and aesthetics in mind. In this respect they’re a perfect subject for The Design Museum.
Function’s a complicated word, you could use a word like utility because… Well, I think function is an alibi which allows people to explore almost to baroque extents, and emotions are a function too, so your relationship with your watch is a part of that, so it’s how it feels, what it says about you, how it conveys, and you’re right, it is a fascinating subject for us because it does look at technology, it looks at the relationship between the body and an object, it’s about a reflection of how we see ourselves, what we wear, so it’s a really interesting way into the subject. The challenge is of course that watches are very small, and how you actually exhibit those is an interesting one. I think what Norman has done with this design actually will make it look rather dramatic; we’ve borrowed a replica of the aircraft that Alberto Santos-Dumont flew and there’s a big representation of the Eiffel Tower, so it’s going to look great.
You’ve spoken previously about objects today “not lasting in the same way” as objects from previous eras, which feels significant in terms of what we’re talking about here. Presumably today many people rely on their phone for the time for example – and of course we have the Apple watch too – what’s your take on this reliance on technology?
I think that we do live in a world of pixels and the world is sort of, melting in front of us. One of the things we have in the collection upstairs is what I call the Wall of Mass Extinctions, and it’s showing how time measurement, image capture, and all these things that once had distinct objects, have now all disappeared into the smartphone which is only ten years old but has changed the way, utterly that we live, how we meet each other, how we navigate the city. But it seems like most big ideas have a sort of, not equal, but a reaction in the opposite direction. Human beings are still fascinated by objects, by tactile values, by having things that mark a moment in our lives and I suppose that’s the watch’s purpose, I mean we talked about the word ‘function’ before, and of course, extreme precision in timekeeping is something which is as attractive as extreme durability or a car with extreme performance, and there’s a kind of pleasure to be taken in something that can do something extraordinarily well, even though you don’t necessarily – there’s such a thing as redundant function – and maybe some forms of watch are that.
It’s interesting how, there was a time when a fountain pen had some of the roles of a watch, and for a variety of reasons that’s almost disappeared, but the idea of the high precision fountain pen – maybe it’s the fact they leak over your shirt – causes the problem. But the watch still has that, because I suppose there are organisations like Cartier who defend its values and keeps its values, in the way that the Ferrari… you know the future of the car is going to be self-driving, in which we have no emotional relationship with it, and then on the other end for those than can afford it is going to be something more like couture car-making.
The exhibition explores how Cartier produced the first men’s wristwatch – making something functional (the pocket watch) practical – which you could suggest is similar to what Coco Chanel did in terms of raising hemlines and making womenswear practical. Would you agree?
Well the watch was creating a new form, a new typology, like the first angle poise was the first time that there was an adjustable lamp that had springs, so that’s a new form, like the first laptop was a new form, and that’s rather extraordinary and doesn’t happen very often. I’m not sure that’s what Chanel did, maybe Saint Laurent when he made the smoking jacket – that was doing something new. The first time that Levi’s made a pair of jeans they were creating a new archetype; the first time Burberry made a trench coat, these are all creations of something – a new form – and other people play around with it, so the wristwatch is not only associated with one maker, it’s the first, and I guess designing the first of something is the most important time to do it, and then other people take the form and make their own versions of it, so now there are many other trench coats – there’s only one Burberry. Then it must become a form which people play around, but making the first of something is always the most interesting. I mean the first digital watch is also an interesting moment, it took a while to settle down to what it should be, because initially they were extremely expensive and then they became disposable, and that transition is also interesting.
Cartier in Motion is open now through to 28th July.