Crossing Borders Between Architecture and Jewellery: William Lim in Conversation With Nicolas Bos

This article is brought to you by L’ÉCOLE, The School of Jewelry Arts.

From September 16 to October 1 this year, the third edition of the nomadic L’ÉCOLE, The School of Jewelry Arts, supported by the Paris-based luxe jewellery brand Van Cleef & Arpels is returning to Hong Kong with its seminars on the craft and aesthetics of jewellery making.

Based at PMQ’s The Qube, the light-filled aerial bridge between PMQ’s facing tower blocks, the two-week programme offers courses in the art history of jewellery, the savoir-faire of hands-on craft workshops making jewellery, and gemology, with a series of evening conversations on topics from collecting jewellery to Asia Pacific pearls. A separate program for gifted young artists and photographers will send jury-selected candidates to Paris for deeper immersion.

“It’s really the idea of transmission which is so important, and this initiative enables transmission with a new generation,” says Nicolas Bos, president and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels. “When you look back in time, L’École will train up a group of young people that become interested in jewellery design,” says William Lim, managing director of CL3 Architects and a member of L’ÉCOLE’s Hong Kong committee.

Bos and Lim recently came together with Zolima CityMag to explore the intersection between form and function, art and design, and the serendipitous discoveries made possible by the yin and yang complementarity of East and West.

Zolima CityMag (ZCM): Jewellery and architecture both start with the human body and the individual, but are very different. What do they have in common?

Nicholas Bos (NB): The two things they really have in common are firstly the idea of expressing an artistic dimension and a culture through aesthetic and style. The second thing is that they have to be adapted to the scale of the body for their functional aspects. There is always tension between the two. On the one hand, ornamentation, if it only serves to express style and beauty, can come at the expense of control. On the other hand, if it serves the purpose and the functionality of the body, comfort may come at the expense of style. And I think that the balance between functionality and comfort on one hand, and style and expression of beauty on the other hand are shared between the two, although of course the scale is very, very different.

William Lim (WL): In architecture, beginning with Gothic and Baroque, ornamentation became more and more important, to the extent that it tried to justify that nature was geometric and ornamental, to the extent it tried to defy the human nature by reaching out to the sky, which itself is the real function of structure. In more recent times, architecture has become more and more related to the human body, to ergonomics.

For Le Corbusier in the 1930s, all structure was in proportion to the human body. More and more, we realise that there are certain dimensions that are just comfortable to the human body. But if you are totally utilitarian, and think just in terms of functionality, then it becomes very dry and boring and that’s when some ornamentation becomes a necessity to make things more human by being a bit decorative. So even Le Corbusier would put a sculpture or tapestry in architecture to make it more related to human emotion.

From there, I think we could see that there is a more practical and functional side of architecture, and there is also the emotional side of architecture, and a good piece of architecture needs to have both. And I would think for jewellery, it’s the same. In the evolution of jewellery, primitive jewellery might look like pure ornamentation but it represented faith and belief, which then make the jewellery become not just an object, but something with emotion attached to it, and as a result, a lot more interesting and important. In architecture, too, if it has emotion attached to it, the place becomes more interesting and important to a person, and that’s how I see the relationship between architecture and jewellery.

Le Corbusier Le Modulor Jewellery

Le Modulor, a series of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale developed by Le Corbusier

ZCM: We used to think in terms of a strict hierarchy between art and design, but that line seems to be blurring more and more. What’s your perspective?

NB: A century ago, the Bauhaus movement, or you can think of the work of William Morris in the late 19th century, considered everything in a very holistic way. The same artists or designers would try to laterally apply their ideas, their imagination, and their sense of aesthetics to furniture, art, jewellery and architecture. I’m more interested in this type of approach than in those that establish boundaries between categories.

Typically, what we tried to do when we developed the Poetic Complications line of watches —because in the field of jewellery and watchmaking, roles or boundaries were established between men’s watches, women’s watches, jewellery and watchmaking — was the idea to try to reconnect universes or creative universes coming from the field of jewellery. [It was] to create a more feminine or narrative approach for inspiration, that would come from poetry, literature or ballet, and associate them with a creative process in the field of watchmaking or jewellery.

I feel that the creative process is much more interesting and richer when you go across categories, across schools of inspiration, instead of remaining specialised in your own particular field. You can create something amazing thanks to technology and craftsmanship, but imagination and emotion are far more difficult to create.

William Lim Nicolas Bos Jewellery

Pont des Amoureux  Watch part of  the Poetic Complications Collection – Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels

WL: Historically, great designers have always crossed boundaries. You could look at Eileen Gray, the Irish architect and furniture designer, who went from furniture to architecture to objects and even to jewellery, and then you can look at an artist like Donald Judd, who went from art into furniture. And similarly, for architects, there are a lot who cross from architecture into the art realm. I think nowadays the boundary is blurred, and I think maybe it has always been blurred. When I went to look at Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel, I thought, is it architecture or is it sculpture? It can easily cross into the other realm.

I think this is happening more and more. That’s why architecture is being shown in museums nowadays, almost as art work. Fashion is being shown in museums. Look at the recent Alexander McQueen show, which was amazing. Again, are these art works or is this fashion? I think the boundary is getting more and more blurred. The great works nowadays are those that can stand up as multiple things, those that are both functional and artistic. They can be seen as works of art and architecture. The boundaries are no longer clear, and I think that’s the exciting thing about design in general.

NB: If I may elaborate on that, I think that it’s a matter of boundaries, categories, but it’s also a matter of hierarchy. In museums in Western culture, visual art has been considered more important, artistically, than decorative or applied art. It’s exactly as we are saying, when fashion and architecture came back into the museum, the first reaction was that fashion is art, or architecture is art, and they were reaching higher levels. What we are fighting for as an institution devoted to decorative art, is that you don’t have to establish or support hierarchies.

I’m glad that anyone could enjoy an architecture exhibition or a jewellery exhibition without having to consider whether jewellery can be considered art. Of course, it’s a form of decorative art. It’s not painting, it’s not sculpture. It’s a different category, but there is not necessarily a hierarchy. Very good jewellery is for me more emotional and more interesting than a bad painting, and great architecture is for me much more enriching than a bad sculpture. At the end of the day, what matters is quality, the work that went into it, and emotion, the quality of what you feel when you look at it.

WL: Yes, like that recent Van Cleef & Arpel’s show – L’Arche de Noe installation. Is it jewellery, or is it art? To me, those are art pieces, even though I know I wouldn’t wear them, but I would love to have one because it is an art object. I think that’s a perfect example of how jewellery can cross boundaries.

Arche de Noé Van Cleef Arpels Nicolas Bos William Lim Jewellery

Chevaux clip from Noah’s Ark – High Jewelry Collection L’arche de Noé racontée par Van Cleef & Arpels – Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels

ZCM: Speaking of another possibly outdated way of thinking, do you in any sense see your work embodying separate legacies of Eastern and Western art?

NB: I think that there is a different way to look at this question. There are definitely strong, historical traditions, that are associated with major civilisations and that come with their own aesthetics. In Asia, the Chinese tradition, the Japanese tradition when it comes to decorative art including jewellery are different and complementary to the European tradition, or even the more recent American tradition. These traditions have for two thousand years, helped each other and enriched each other.

For instance, European jewellery, Van Cleef & Arpels’ jewellery over the past century, has been very influenced by Asian and Persian traditions. It’s somehow the role that artists or designers want to play, to bring emotion and surprise, that very often comes with a form of exoticism or a discovery of different cultures. I think that in a way, if you want to move or surprise, let’s say, a French collector in the 1920s or 1930s, you didn’t necessarily only want to refer to his own culture and civilisation, which you can suppose he knows quite well, you want to come with an element that is inspired by Egyptian or Chinese culture, that will come with an element of surprise and discovery.

Van Cleef & Arpels Nicolas Bos William Lim Jewellery

Chapeaux Chinois  (Chinese hat set) in 1931 – Courtesy Van Cleef & Arpels

I think that’s probably one of the reasons why in the 1920s, jewellery or some form of decorative art was very important. The French or British, in the 1920s, were quite fascinated by Chinese antiques, Egyptian antiques. Their décor, design was integrated into another tradition that could be furniture, or jewellery or architecture, for that matter. That sense of foreign culture and discovery was very important. It’s one of the reasons why designers have always looked to other cultures for inspiration. There was really a kind of exchange between them both.

WL: I agree. Asian design and architecture have a long history, but it was the West that rediscovered them. You can look at Carlos Scarpa, the Italian architect, who really turned Japanese architecture into a new type of study. You can look at Frank Lloyd Wright, who took Asian proportions into a new Western aesthetic. Throughout history, you can look at many examples like that. You can look at Charles Rennie Mackintosh, or Mies van der Rohe, whose simplicity actually came from Asian architecture. I think in a way it’s a kind of cycle going back and forth. Originally there is a Chinese or Asian aesthetic, and then Westerners took a new look at it, and then it inspired new thinking in Asia.

When I was studying architecture, I was very much influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, and I was amazed that my understanding of Asian or Chinese architecture really came from studying his approach to architecture. The way he planned the Imperial Hotel is based on an Asian aesthetic and planning principles. After it goes full circle, you start to realise the intriguing aspects of your own culture. It’s interesting how things evolve and how Eastern and Western culture mix and become this very rich language, such that, if you separate it one from the other, it’s a lot less interesting. When you start to merge the two, it starts to become this very exciting language. Maybe that’s why we believe in the yin and the yang, and the complementarity of the two. The two come together and becomes something a lot more exciting and interesting.

Nicolas Bos William Lim Van Cleef & Arpels Jewellery

Farnsworth House by Mies van der Roher – Photo Courtesy James Vaughan Flickr

ZCM: William, in a previous interview, you said that one of your references for the lobby of the Marina Sands in Singapore was a Song dynasty painting. Can you tell us about it?

WL: It’s the Qingming Festival painting (“Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” by Zhang Zeduan, 1085-1145, now in the Palace Museum in Beijing). When we were designing the lobby space, it’s a huge space, almost like a mini-city, the problem was how to divide the people that are just walking through from the people who are having lunch there, or having a drink, or waiting to go to their hotel room.

Then I took a look at this painting from the Song dynasty, and the way it’s organised. It creates these moments. It’s about a river in China, and about this festival, so it has boats and a half moon bridge and it has people, and all these activities, but in the painting, they are all organised in a very neat way, and everything has a place. I got inspired by that when I planned the Marina Bay Sands, where we separate activities into different layers, and have different pockets within the space. As a result, although the reference to Chinese concept is very subtle in that project, but I would like to think that the essence, the way that I found the solution, is very much based on a very Oriental principle.

William Lim Nicolas Bos Van cleef & Arpels Jewellery

Detail of Along the river During the Qingming Festival by Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145)

Q: Nicolas, you talk about narrative storytelling in Van Cleef & Arpels’ Poetic Complications watches. What are some of the aesthetic references behind the line?

NB: There are actually a lot of references. Watchmaking in the last century has been mostly driven to be ever more precise, which is a scientific, technical and masculine approach. There is another way to look at time, which is much more poetic, and I think that there is there also a very strong Asian influence in this approach. There is a lot of Asian art, poetry and literature that has to do with the succession of the seasons, the rhythms of nature. It’s not about mastering time, defining and measuring it. It’s more a way to understand time, the flow of life and very much associated with an appreciation of nature and the cycle of nature, and this was really our inspiration.

The first piece that we did in that collection was a watch that was showing the passing of the seasons in real time, very, very slowly. The dial evolved from one day to the next. You could not perceive it instantly, but the dial of the watch in winter would be a representation of winter, with snowflakes, a black and white background, and a winter landscape. After three months, it becomes springtime, and the face of the watch a representation of blossoming flowers and butterflies, with bright colours. We are trying to recreate that more poetic vision of time, disconnected from the idea of masculine performance, but of course expressed using all the possibilities of mechanical watchmaking, which is a fascinating art by itself.

We tried to associate all the pieces in the collection with the idea of the emotion or poetry of the passing of time. We came up with birds and butterflies that fly over the dial of the watch, and one with two logos that are marching towards each other, and a bridge with the background of Paris at night. The idea is that you don’t want to divide time, you want to enjoy it. Time becomes a love story, with a romantic setting. It’s really a philosophy, a poetic vision that we wanted to express and that was a bit different from the way that watchmaking has developed over the last couple of decades.

L’ÉCOLE School of Jewelry Arts courses, will return to Hong Kong from September 16 to October 1, 2017.
For more information, to book a course or attend a lecture about the secrets of fine jewellery making, please click here.
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