When Revolution first heard late last year that Cartier was to become the subject of an exhibition at London’s Design Museum, our expectations were high. The museum director Deyan Sudjic ensures that any show in the magnificent galleries of the new space on Kensington High Street (previously found in the more unexpected location of Shad Thames) is more than a simple presentation of beautiful objets. To both fit in and, conversely, to stand out here, an exhibition must have a message or a purpose, there must be something that makes visitors think, and with Cartier in Motion (running until 28 July) the curators have delivered in spades.

The importance of Cartier in the 20th century is something not lost on the Design Museum. The link between the watch brand and the museum goes back several years to when Sudjic and his team were planning the permanent exhibition Designer Maker User – a key attraction in the new museum. Time and the ability to keep it accurately was obviously seen as a major development and, as the Santos is (arguably) generally viewed as the first proper wristwatch, an essential part of the display. Cartier was, therefore, chosen as the reference for the museum’s latest show.

Co-curated by one of the most talented and prolific architects of our time, Norman Foster, the purpose was to get beneath the surface of Cartier, to go beyond the extraordinary history of the company and to explore its impact on the contemporary world. For Sudjic, the main issue was installing the right curator – someone with the authority to explore the subject in depth. “I went to La Chaux-de-Fonds, where Cartier makes its watches,” Sudjic says, “and realised that it was the birthplace of one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, Le Corbusier. And at the same time, I remembered that Norman Foster is an architect who has been fascinated by flight. So, a combination of La Chaux-de-Fonds, and Alberto Santos-Dumont made Foster the ideal choice for the project.”

But with parallel projects already in progress, ranging from Mexico City’s new international airport, to Apple’s Campus 2, Bloomberg’s London HQ and Comcast Innovation and Technology Centre in Philadelphia, how did Sudjic manage to persuade Foster to take on the Cartier exhibition? “It’s very difficult to decide what will engage me as opposed to what I am doing with the practice,” says Foster. “It’s hard to rationalise but maybe in this case it was the opportunity to curate something and be able to work on it down to the smallest detail. It’s also been an opportunity to learn a lot about that period in time. And, at the end of the day, the Design Museum is the Design Museum and it was about celebrating its opening year.”

Right Angles

“It was triggered by a conversation with Deyan. When he asked me to curate the exhibition, I said: ‘Why me?’ He said: ‘Well because of the associations with the worlds of aviation and engineering.’ I didn’t know a lot about these associations so I said I would look into it and the more I did, the more I became fascinated. I’ve often said that for me as an architect, I can’t separate the world of buildings from urbanisation and cities, and I can’t separate those from the people that live there and the infrastructure involved – aircraft, locomotives, cars. And I’m fascinated by the way that artists have anticipated some of the things that happen, like Brâncuși and Boccioni, who anticipated the streamlined era before streamlining exited.

“All of these different worlds – fashion, art, to a lesser extent jewellery – the more I got into it, the more I started to see the opportunity to put this seemingly simple act of strapping a watch onto your wrist into so many different contexts and I could imagine that one could come out of such an exhibition with a radically different point of view. So instead of starting with the objects, I started with the context, with the people. When I bounced that at Cartier I had no idea how receptive they would be because this was not taking their product as the starting but rather as the end. To my very pleasant surprise, they were totally supportive.”

With more than 170 exhibits on show, Foster had his job cut out choosing what objects most reflected the century and the changes that occurred specifically in Paris during that time plus the influence that had on Cartier. “I visited three locations,” he says. “In Paris it was fascinating to find craftsmen in the back of a shop in the middle of a city, and see how they engage with the Cartier designers. I also went to see modern watches being made in La Chaux-de-Fonds and to the physical archive in Geneva. Choosing the exhibits was an interactive experience. Cartier had its own insights and knows the significance of one piece over another. Plus, we talked to a number of independent experts – scholars, historians and our own researchers from the practice,”

“Norman was looking for things associated with Cartier that reflected his enthusiasms,” Sudjic further explains. “Mostly they are from the extraordinary range of pieces of all kinds that represent Cartier’s output. The Cartier team did a great job at research to find exceptional items: from a miniature lunar lander, to model aircraft. But there were also some remarkable things made specially for the show such as a brass model of the Eiffel Tower and copies of the furniture that Santos-Dumont had made for his apartment in Paris that allowed him to treat his guests to high rise dinner parties at ceiling level to give them an insight into what flight might be like.”

Six of the best

The exhibition explores six main themes: the evolution of Paris and its influence on Cartier shapes; Louis Cartier’s connections with Santos-Dumont and other pioneers of the age; the birth of the modern wristwatch; the everyday and sophisticated accessories designed to cater to a glamorous inter-war lifestyle; the evolution of Cartier watch designs; and Cartier craftsmanship, with a focus on mystery clocks and skeleton movements. And, although the majority of the exhibits were sourced from the Cartier Collection, there are also loans from the Collection of the Monaco Princely Palace Collection, the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at Le Bourget airport and the Rockefeller Center. Beautifully balanced, items on display include wristwatches, pocket watches, mysterious clocks, cigarette cases, desk sets, posters, photographs and blueprints and even a replica of the Santos-Dumont plane.

But, at the heart of the exhibition is one of our greatest watch brands and the way it developed with and was influenced by the progression of the 20th century. On why Cartier deserves to be placed in this position, Sudjic says: “It’s a fundamental human characteristic to look for objects with which we can develop personal connections. Over the years there have been so many, from furniture to fountain pens. The watch, with its identity and potential carefully explored by Cartier and its peers, has managed to survive the digital revolution. This exhibition shows us how much handcraft and the material world, and the contemporary forms of craft and skill still have to offer. Throughout this exhibition, Cartier shows the close relationship between skill and design and demonstrates that, even in the era of mass production, individual skill still has a commanding presence.”

“I hope that seeing the exhibition will give people a greater knowledge of a specific period in time,” says Foster. “A time of a society in flux, where a new city was being created, one with radical engineering structures the likes of which had never been seen before, and the birth of the concept of speed. So, if somebody comes away having seen a very small object that has enabled them to understand the birth of things that we take for granted today and with a greater sense of enlightenment, then I have done my job. I think the interesting thing is that because it touches so many subjects it will appeal to a wider audience. If you are interested in architecture, in aircraft, in history and, of course in watches and jewellery, then there is something in Cartier in Motion for you.”

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