words Kieran Long
Nadja Swarovski is still in touch with the tacky side of the crystal manufacturing company that bears her name. “My favourite when I was a child was this flower. Oh my god! I couldn’t get enough of it!” she says, showing me a drawer full of tiny crystal flower heads taken from a cupboard of her central London office.
Swarovski is the heir to the Swarovski family business, one that turns over $1.6 billion each year and has a virtual monopoly on crystal and related products, and is developing a reputation as one of the great patrons of contemporary design.
However, as the flowers suggest, the company’s bread and butter is objects that you could say were the very definition of kitsch. One of Swarovski’s biggest sellers, is a pair of Malachite kingfishers perched on a matt crystal twig, just 10cm high and with their yellow crystal beaks looking hopefully upwards. Then there are the crystal kittens, frozen in playful poses or chasing a crystal ball. Conceive of a mind that can pay €134 for a faceted crystal toucan, and you are probably the kind of marketing genius that has made Swarovski a global brand. However, this year’s Milan furniture fair gave further credence to the fact the Swarovski has transformed its image with a bit of help from the design world. Names such as Gaetano Pesce, Ron Arad, Karim Rashid, Jurgen Bey and Tobias Wong created pieces for the now annual Crystal Palace exhibition, which was one of the most beautiful shows in Milan. Top designers now queue up to design chandeliers with this once-disdained material.
It is Nadja Swarovski who has, of late, been the influence. Through her background in the New York fashion world, she brought some much needed glamour to the brand, and saw crystal’s potential as a design material in these post-minimal times. She is the great-great- granddaughter of Daniel Swarovski, the Bohemian crystal maker who moved to Wattens in Tirolean Austria and founded Swarovski in 1895. It went on to become a company that now dominates global crystal production and a wide range of other business interests. “It was very lucky for him because his crystal-producing buddies were behind the iron curtain [in the modern-day Czech Republic], and that’s really what gave him the monopoly,” explains Nadja.
She describes her childhood as one surrounded by crystals – her bedroom window faced the huge Swarovski factory. “I thought all little boys and girls grew up with tons of crystal around them,” she says. “My father would come home with pockets full of crystals, which was just fantastic for my sister and me. We’d sit there and make our own necklaces and bracelets, we were just fans. Even in terms of the crystal animals, I had my own entire pig collection.”
It was when Nadja Swarovski moved to New York, first to study and then to pursue a career in fashion PR, that she became aware of the material’s potential, and the problem of its kitsch image. As she admits: “Jewellery had a kind of a tacky connotation, you know. I think crystals in clothing had the Liberace connotation.” Swarovski worked for Eleanor Lambert, the grande dame of American fashion PR, and retains the inscrutable bubbliness of many well-drilled PR people. She has no great insight into the work of the designers themselves, and describes her skills as “connecting point A and point B in order to create point C – you know, creating synergies, making mutually beneficial relationships.”
Swarovski is not afraid of taking credit for tendencies that she sees as beginning with the chandeliers. She even suggests that Tord Boontje’s flower fascination might have started with his Blossom piece for Swarovski’s 2002 collection. Boontje actually designed his floral Wednesday light the year before this, but there is little doubt that she is quick off the mark when it comes to recognising the hottest talent. “I don’t know, is it my imagination, or am I seeing more chandeliers than I ever have? And, uh, did we do this at the right time? Was it idea-morphing? Or did we actually start something here? You know?” she says, in a flurry of mock-ironic rhetorical questions and astounding jargon.
The history of Swarovski has been about finding new applications for their relatively specific product. As a company its market is very broad. Uncut Swarovski crystal balls are used for cats eyes on roads, and Swarovski prisms are used for the inner workings of telescopes, binoculars and precision gun sights. The company even manufactures cutting tools that provide components for Rolls-Royce jet engines. Nadja Swarovski is the first to try to bring a certain haute couture element to the company’s output.
Ron Arad created one of the best-known of the Swarovski chandeliers – the Lolita light – produced for Crystal Palace 2004. It has since been exhibited at the Venice architecture biennale and Tokyo design week. It integrated computer-controlled LEDs into a spiral of hanging crystals. Viewers could send a text message from their mobile phones that would then be shown in light on the chandelier’s matrix of LED-lit crystals.
“My image of Swarovski was that of kitsch and really not my world,” says Arad. “But crystals – the material – are fascinating. There is a new generation in Swarovski represented by Nadja who really sees the potential of the product.” He continues: “The first year they asked me I turned it down. The next year they asked again and I said, well, OK, and I had to admit that they were right and I was wrong.”
For this year’s sequel – entitled Miss Haze after the surname of Nabokov’s Lolita – Arad has designed what he describes as a “flying carpet” of lit crystals. Visitors will be able to draw with a stylus on a palm pilot, and those patterns will be reproduced on the carpet of LEDs. Arad and Swarovski, despite an inauspicious beginning, are now very close collaborators – the London-based designer has recently completed plans for a new Swarovski Hotel in Austria.
Arad says that the best thing about working on the Swarovski project is that there are no limits – Swarovski gives its designers no boundaries in terms of budget, material or scope. But while the protype chandeliers are expensive to make, they still have huge commercial potential. At this year’s Milan, Swarovski exhibited smaller, commercially available versions of earlier models, including Tord Boontje’s Blossom and Tom Dixon’s Ball.
Swarovski says: “I have to say, these are fantastic times for the consumer, there’s so much creativity out there, fantastic product for great prices. Competition is so huge and we would like to take that challenge and create beautiful and design-driven products. Beautiful design is, in my opinion, not that hard to come by. I really think that we can influence the whole consumer side within Swarovski.”
This is the consumer side that currently sells thousands of crystal kittens. Nadja Swarovski’s aim, though, is to take the power base she has developed in fashion and lighting, and develop it towards objects at good prices. “There are so many spin-off ideas. For example you could take the chandelier concept and make a table-top idea: candelabra to cutlery to china to table cloths – I mean, every chandelier has its perfect lifestyle roll-out concept. This is where I see this developing,” she says.
At the end of our meeting, instead of hurrying me out the door, it is almost as if she wants to describe the whole range of Swarovski operations to me. Her enthusiasm is indiscriminate. She says: “Of course there is Swarovski optic – the binoculars and telescopes – and again in my opinion that’s a fantastic brand. The hunting community and birdwatchers are on the rise!” And with that rather scary prospect, I leave.