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Swarovski: Sparkling Design & Crystallised Architecture

Three architects that took part in the Swarovski Crystal Palace project at Milan’s Fuorisalone talk to Dazed Digital about architecture, crystals and design

Fashion designers often consider crystals as one of the most interesting materials to work with thanks to their nature, shapes and reflecting power. During the last few years Swarovski has contributed through innovative projects launched in collaboration with international architects and designers to explore further the possibilities of crystals. The latest Swarovski Crystal Palace exhibition, curated by Jules Wright, founder of 'The Wapping Project', and presented during Milan’s Fuorisalone, included new projects by five different designers. The exhibition was conceived as a journey inspired by iconic places, such as Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors and St Petersburg’s Winter Palace, that also led to an exploration of Japanese Zen aesthetic. Along the journey visitors stopped in different rooms, each one featuring one unique creation, starting with “Stellar” by Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka. 'Stellar' featured a 1 metre diameter globe encrusted with thousands of Swarovski crystals, lit from within by hundreds of LED lights and a globe suspended on a tank of water, on which crystals grew naturally.

The journey continued with Gwenaël Nicolas’s 'Sparks', consisting in helium-filled balloons suspended in the air and incorporating inside a small crystal sculpture lit up by a LED light and a 10 metre-long LED-illuminated string of crystals. Minimalism characterised instead Vincent Van Duysen’s “Frost”, a versatile luminous crystal bar employed to create in one room a fairy tale-like forest of ice. Inspired by the Northern Lights, Dutch architectural lighting designer Rogier van der Heide came up with  “Dream Cloud”, a cloud made using thousands of crystals that floated in the air on a carpet of black tulips, while Swiss-born, San-Francisco-based designer Yves Béhar incorporated in his crystal-shaped paper lanterns for his 'Amplify' project a real crystal that refracted beautiful patterns of light. The visitors’ journey concluded in the Archive Room that featured a selection of projects created for Swarovski Crystal Palace throughout eight years of collaborations with different designers.
- Tokujin Yoshioka -
Yoshioka worked under Shiro Kuramata in 1987 and Issey Miyake since 1988, establishing his own studio, Tokujin Yoshioka Design in 2000. During the last 20 years he has extensively worked with Issey Miyake, curating installations and designing shops. He also collaborated with different leading companies, including Hermès and Cartier. 

Dazed Digital: Can you explain us the concept behind “Stellar”?
Tokujin Yoshioka: “Stellar” is an artificial star based on the beauty created by coincidence during the formation process of a natural crystal. The project is a continuation of my 2008 chair entitled “VENUS - Natural crystal chair”. Like Venus the chair emerged from the water and was covered in crystals that naturally grew on it in an aquarium environment. “Stellar” is a chandelier that gives a dazzling light to the space and it’s covered in tiny crystal that naturally grow on it. Through the crystals I tried to express, the beauty of the shapes resulting from this natural process. 

DD: What are the challenges of working with crystals?
Tokujin Yoshioka: Creating an evocative piece employing crystals and reinterpreting through them the brightness of real stars by exploiting the property and attractive features of crystals and lights.

DD: How does this project differ from previous collaborations you did with Swarovski?
Tokujin Yoshioka: In 2005, I designed a futuristic chandelier entitled "Stardust" that featured a scene with moving images being projected onto the dark night sky by an infinite particle of lights. Three years later, I designed a stool entitled "Eternal", inspired by a dream of bringing down the stars and their beauty from the sky and sealing them eternally in a transparent lump.

DD: What fascinates you about crystals?
Tokujin Yoshioka: I’m drawn to the beauty, transparency and poetry of crystals as they are a transparent material that can capture and reflect the light. It is always a great pleasure to work with Swarovski. I always gain a stimulating and interesting experience by collaborating with them. They have a long history and tradition and they’re always on the lookout for something new and exciting.

DD: This year, you presented new works from Kartell, Swarovski Crystal Palace and Moroso: do these projects have anything in common?
Tokujin Yoshioka: We are living in an age in which design overflows, so in these projects I pondered on expressing something that transcends the general idea of form and design, and focuses on provoking the viewer’s emotions. 

DD: What are your future projects?
Tokujin Yoshioka: From May 1st, there will be 2 important projects, my solo exhibition held in Seoul, Korea and the Shanghai Expo held in China. At the "Tokujin Yoshioka_Spectrum" exhibition in Seoul I will present a part of my dream architecture project "Rainbow Church", a 9 metre-high stained glass inspired by the Chepelle du Rosaire in Vence, also known as the “Matisse Chapel”, while at the Shanghai Expo, I will present a natural crystal work, a "growing crystal" with a diameter of 3 meters immersed in a huge aquarium. 

- Gwenaël Nicolas -
Born in France, Gwenaël Nicolas first began working in Japan in 1991 and, seven years later, he established in Tokyo his design company Curiosity. Since then he has worked with Issey Miyake, Nintendo and Pioneer, among the others.

Dazed Digital: What inspired “Sparks”?
Gwenaël Nicolas: When I work on a project I always try to imagine the opposite of what people may expect. So I imagined a story involving sparks and wondered what would happen in an environment without gravity, would crystals be floating in a room? I therefore conceived the installation as a story told in two sequences: first the visitors discovered the crystals flying inside invisible helium balloons, and then they entered another room with a long string of crystals flying through the entire space with sparks running across its length.

DD: Did you find it challenging working on this project?
Gwenaël Nicolas: The making of the piece was very challenging considering that, when I presented the idea, it was deemed impossible to make it.

DD: Do you feel there is something of the essence of Japanese beauty – revolving around the Wabi-Sabi-Suki concepts – in this project?
Gwenaël Nicolas: There is an international language called 'beauty'. 'Sparks' is designed to be appreciated beyond cultures, the apparent simplicity of the design refers to the perception we have of Japanese aesthetic, but simplicity is not the intention, it is the result of the design that ensures the project can be fully experienced. 

DD: In architecture light is considered as a key factor of space, in which ways does light interact with space in this project?
Gwenaël Nicolas: I used the light to make the space and the object disappear. In architecture light is used to reveal the space, but I employ the light to make it disappear. Light gives me the power to control the existence of a material, the process of discovery and the perception of a scene.
DD: What did you learn from this project?
Gwenaël Nicolas: While working on 'Sparks' many new ideas came to my mind and I realised that nothing is impossible and, if you present an idea that is truly inspiring and can spark up a different experience for a client, you will eventually get complete support.

DD: Where will you be after Milan’s Salone?
Gwenaël Nicolas: I will direct the next Tokyo Design Week. It will be different this year with a new space design. Next month there is also the launch of a watch collaborative project between Wallpaper and Swiss brand Maurice Lacroix. I am also working on a shop for the Longchamp brand called 'Flashshop' with a façade that is visible only in the flash of a second. 

DD: What inspires your design theory?
Gwenaël Nicolas: Curiosity! I’m very curious by nature, that’s why my studio is called Curiosity. I want to imagine the future and not just try to spot it when it manifests itself. I’m an experimentalist and I think that design must have a visual impact and trigger curiosity but it can only be appreciated if you experience it yourself. We share information through the web and pictures, but we can’t share the emotion we felt at a certain place and time.

DD: As a President of Curiosity, what’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
Gwenaël Nicolas: To stop thinking about projects and go home to cook for my kids! Jokes aside, I guess it’s to convince my client to make things they don’t know they want yet and, most of the time,  not being sure they are actually possible when I present them.

DD: Among the Curiosity clients there is also Issey Miyake: were you ever inspired by the beauty of a garment or an accessory in your designs?
Gwenaël Nicolas: Design does not inspire design, but inspiration comes from everything, it is a reaction chemistry, though at first there is the idea that makes a project relevant. Issey Miyake’s inspiration is based on imagining the future and editing the images seen.

- Vincent Van Duysen -
Born in Belgium Van Duysen took a degree in architecture at the Higher Institute of Architecture Sint - Lucas, in Ghent and, during the 80s, worked in Milan, collaborating with Aldo Cibic-Sottsass Associati. In 1990 he opened his own studio in Antwerp, concentrating on the field of architecture.

Dazed Digital: Can you tell us more about the idea behind “Frost”?
Vincent Van Duysen: I wanted to create something very simple, a versatile crystal stick that lit up, something that didn’t really have a difficult concept behind it, but was characterised by linearity. The stick resembles a crust of ice that’s why it’s called “Frost”.

DD: What inspired your installation at the Swarovski Crystal Palace?
Vincent Van Duysen: We had in mind a sort of architectural installation and we positioned over 25 sticks vertically, so that they looked like the branches of a tree or a tree around which visitors could walk as if they were in a forest environment. The elements came in different widths and heights and we had to work with resin to maintain a certain degree of durability and stability to make the concept work. A layer of crystals was sprinkled on the resin and a thin glass panel was inserted between the external crystal strata so that the internal LED source didn’t show, but the effects of the crystals within this kind of linear concept of freestanding sticks was maximised.

DD: Do you feel the sticks can also be incorporated in everyday environments?
Vincent Van Duysen: This project is actually a very minimalist one and the sticks can be randomly arranged in an environment such a living room or a bedroom, you could lean them against a wall or suspend them on a table, leave them on the floor or join them together as modular elements to create architectural combinations and dramatic shapes.

DD: Do you feel this project reflects your architectural style?
Vincent Van Duysen: As I said the sticks can be used as architectural elements, but I also feel they have a tactile and sensual quality about them. When you work with crystals there is always this tactile component since you want to touch them, but the way we presented the project in Milan and the “Frost” element itself can be considered as architectural and emotional at the same time.

DD: What do you find fascinating about working with crystals?
Vincent Van Duysen: I find crystals very appealing since they are natural materials, they are clear and sparkle when hit by artificial lights.

DD: Can this project be considered as a development of your previous collaboration with Swarovski?
Vincent Van Duysen: I consider all my projects as continuations of previous ones. In this case I tried to create a more compact object characterised by a physically approachable design, since I wanted people to really be able to feel the crystals. My previous project consisted in a cascade of crystals and you would really need a huge space to incorporate it in an environment. “Frost” features the same amount and density of crystals included in “Cascade”, but the project is more condensed, linear and practical.

DD: Did you present other projects at Milan’s Salone del Mobile?
Vincent Van Duysen: Yes, I did. I presented a lower table system called “Surface” for B&B Italia, the “Totem” modular shelving for Pastoe, the “Dry” tile for Brix and a more commercial project entitled “Elements” for Toscoquattro. 

DD: In the last few years you have also concentrated on residential projects in Milan, how do you feel about working in this city?
Vincent Van Duysen: I’ve been working on different projects in Milan and I know this place really well. I do feel that sometimes its has become a little bit too overexposed and commercial. From a designer’s point of view I guess the most important thing is to preserve your integrity and this is what I usually fight for in all my projects. I love to stay focused on my projects and being able to integrate some of my architectural work into my more commercial projects, but I always try to keep the integrity of my designs firmly in mind.