Artistry & craftsmanship: the designs of Van Cleef & Arpels at the Design Museum 

STIR in conversation with Lise Macdonald on The Art of Movement exhibition as it explores the history of the French luxury jewellery company through its sinuous scenography.

by Devanshi ShahPublished on : Oct 19, 2022

Jewellery design has historically played an intersecting role between fashion, design and craftsmanship. Jewellery itself however has a lot of additional significance attributed to it, by virtue of not only its design but also the materials used. From enhancing one’s beauty to being a symbol of wealth, power, status, and tradition, jewellery has always played a significant role. The designs of these pieces look for inspiration elsewhere. From nature to architecture, the designs are a vast repository of ideas that reflect the ideals of the time they were created in.

The archival collections of jewellery companies are as extensive as those of couture houses. One such archive was recently displayed at the Design Museum in London, UK. The Art of Movement exhibition features nearly 100 creations from the Van Cleef & Arpels archive collection that epitomise luxury design. Supplementing the jewellery display are numerous historical documents and gouache illustrations. Founded in Paris, in 1906, Van Cleef & Arpels come into existence a little over a decade after the marriage of  Estelle Arpels and Dutch diamond-cutter Alfred Van Cleef in 1895. The company was founded by Van Cleef and his father-in-law Salomon Arpels.

Exhibition view of The Art of Movement at the Design Museum London | The Art of Movement | Van Cleef & Arpels | Design Museum London | STIRworld
Dance, exhibition view of The Art of Movement at the Design Museum London Image: Courtesy of Kalory Photo & Video

Famed for its artistry and craftsmanship, the exhibition is divided into four themes: Nature Alive, Elegance, Dance and Abstract Movements. Each of the themes highlights a facet of movement, either in its form, inspiration or construction. The exhibition design is a reflection of the central theme. The scenography of the exhibition welcomes the audience with a floating matte ribbon in the form of a flower that unfolds to become a guide. This flower is inspired by the Silhouette Flower clip, an emblematic design by Van Cleef & Arpels from the 1930s. ​

The flower anamorphosis at the entrance of the exhibition is inspired by the Silhouette Flower clip design by Van Cleef & Arpels in the 1930s | The Art of Movement | Van Cleef & Arpels | Design Museum London | STIRworld
The flower anamorphosis at the entrance of the exhibition is inspired by the Silhouette Flower clip design by Van Cleef & Arpels in the 1930s Image: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels, Courtesy of Kalory Photo & Video

The unique set design is inspired by the world of couture, each showcase features a backdrop made of pleated fabric and assembled on vertical floor-to-ceiling supports. On the essence of the exhibition, Nicolas Bos, President and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels said, "Capturing the ephemeral has become one of Maison’s ultimate quests throughout its history." The statement was reflected, by Tim Marlow OBE, Director and CEO of the Design Museum who said, “We celebrate design in all its forms and this new exhibition will be a wonderful opportunity for UK audiences to enjoy and explore the exquisite craftsmanship that has gone into their work for over a century.”

Dance, exhibition view of The Art of Movement at the Design Museum London | The Art of Movement | Van Cleef & Arpels | Design Museum London | STIRworld
Exhibition view of The Art of Movement at the Design Museum London Image: Courtesy of Kalory Photo & Video

To better grasp an understanding of the archive, the scenography and the Maison, STIR spoke to Lise Macdonald, Director of Heritage and Exhibitions, Van Cleef & Arpels.

Devanshi Shah: How were the four themes identified? How were the designs then allotted to each theme?

Lise Macdonald: The Art of Movement exhibition focuses on how the high jewellery Maison Van Cleef & Arpels has transformed living instants into eternal forms. The exhibition has therefore been structured along four themes: Nature, Dance, Elegance and Abstraction merging jewellery, high jewellery, watches and objects from different decades alongside archives on display. These four themes are characteristic of the creations of the Maison since its foundation in 1906 and continue to nurture the identity of today’s creations.

In order to echo each theme on display the artefacts were selected according to visual grouping free from time constraints. Hence in a showcase, you can see examples of creations from the 1920s, 1940s, 1970s and 1990s altogether, they resonate with one another and echo how each era has addressed common themes.

Abstract Movements, exhibition view of The Art of Movement at the Design Museum London | The Art of Movement | Van Cleef & Arpels | Design Museum London | STIRworld
Abstract Movements, exhibition view of The Art of Movement at the Design Museum London Image: Courtesy of Kalory Photo & Video

Devanshi: Considering the themes and the objects selected is there perhaps also something to be said about inspirations which closely linked to the era they were designed for? Particularly objects with Art Deco, Oriental or POP inspiration?

Lise: Every creation is naturally linked to the spirit of the time and in that respect, Van Cleef & Arpels has always been embedded in its time, where influences of decorative arts, fashion and the arts more broadly have marked its creations. That being said the Maison has also been ahead of its time on several occasions, for example when the Zip necklace was patented in 1938, it took 12 years to figure out the technique of its creation. Or in 1933 when the Maison created the mystery set, until today only a handful number of craftsmen know how to master this very complex technique. The Maison has looked at the past and created pieces based on a reinterpretation of the history in modern times. So the themes that are dear to the Maison, such as nature, couture, feminine figure, dance etc want to be reinterpreted endlessly with always the same attention to the past and the present, irreproachable techniques and exceptional stones.

Later versions of the 1938 Zip necklace, Zip necklace (1952), Collier Zip necklace (1955) | The Art of Movement | Van Cleef & Arpels | Design Museum London | STIRworld
Later versions of the 1938 Zip necklace, Zip necklace (1952), Collier Zip necklace (1955) Image: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

Devanshi: How does the scenography of the exhibition tell the story of Van Cleef and Arpels?

Lise: For this exhibition, we have worked with a design that integrates a very old French technique of pleating fabrics. Indeed Maison Lognon was founded in the mid-19th century and continues until today to excel in this craftsmanship. Every showcase has a specific design inspired by the thematic and the pieces on display. The scenography is very dear to us as it actively participates in conveying the purpose of the exhibition where the movement is captured by the drawing and the pleats of the fabric.

The exhibits are displayed against a backdrop that resembles ‘pleats of fabric’ | The Art of Movement | Van Cleef & Arpels | Design Museum London | STIRworld
The exhibits are displayed against a backdrop that resembles ‘pleats of fabric’ Image: Courtesy of Kalory Photo & Video

Devanshi: Could you give us a comment on the objects on display as being more than jewellery, and being closer to art objects?

Lise: The exhibition also displays objects such as the Minaudiere. An iconic Van Cleef & Arpels creation since 1933, this is an  illustration of Van Cleef & Arpels' vision of elegance. A bag that is inspired by modernist cabinet making with the organisation of compartments to host all a woman would need to go out: lipstick, a comb, a notebook, cigarettes, a lighter and often a hidden clock as the etiquette did not allow a woman at the time to look at time. The Minaudiere is a daring creation at the intersection between a jewel, and a precious object of art.

Minaudiere Fleurs in lacquer and black (1939) | The Art of Movement | Van Cleef & Arpels | Design Museum London | STIRworl
Minaudiere Fleurs in lacquer and black (1939) Image: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

Devanshi: The exhibition also showcases manuscripts, could you state their importance?

Lise: The exhibition showcases original drawings from our archives. About 30 of them are on display in the exhibition. Van Cleef & Arpels has kept its archives since its foundation in 1906. These are very precious sources of information of our past which helps us understand our roots and the creations of the Maison during the 20th century.

Archival sketches manuscripts| The Art of Movement | Van Cleef & Arpels | Design Museum London | STIRworld
Archival sketches manuscripts Image: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

Devanshi: What is the most interesting document on display?

Lise: They are all very important as they are testimony of the craftsmanship, sources of inspiration and different styles the Maison has developed throughout the 20th century. If I had to pick up one drawing it would be the drawing of a ballerina inspired by the painting of Nicolas Lancret (a painting conserved at the Wallace Collection in London). Indeed this drawing is the perfect translation into jewellery of one of the 18th century's most famous ballerinas la Camargo. The jewel was created and now belongs in a private collection.

Clip Danseuse (1952), Clip Ballerine Paillettes (1953) | The Art of Movement | Van Cleef & Arpels | Design Museum London | STIRworld
(L) Clip Danseuse (1952), (R) Clip Ballerine Paillettes (1953) Image: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels

Devanshi: Which piece of jewellery has the most interesting craftsmanship-related story attached to it?

Lise: Of course, the Zip necklace is a jewel that is inspired by surrealism and a utilitarian accessory. The Zip is the epitome of craftsmanship, technical prowess, elegance and audacity. One other astonishing piece is the silhouette clip of 1937: at the intersection between a lace stylised bow and a flower. This epitomises in the middle of the modernist era how the Maison was at the avant-garde of creation. Its bold design is strikingly modern even today.

I would also highlight the Bell Flowers clip 1969 in mystery set sapphires. A technique patented by Van Cleef & Arpels in 1933 consists of a setting stoned where no prongs are visible. No other jewellers masters this technique as it requires very high skills and many years of transmission But there are many masterpieces in the exhibition, both from private loans and our patrimonial collection.

Manuscript of clips, installation view of the Bell Flower Clips | The Art of Movement | Van Cleef & Arpels | Design Museum London | STIRworld
(L) Manuscript of clips, (R) Installation view of the Bell Flower Clips Image: Courtesy of Van Cleef & Arpels, Courtesy of Kalory Photo & Video

Devanshi: Considering this is in many ways an archival show, where do Van Cleef and Arpels go from here?

Lise: The Maison has always been dedicated to education and transmission of its patrimony, the Art of Movement exhibition is meant to share with the audience in the UK and in London more particularly an understanding of how Van Cleef & Arpels has transformed living instants into eternal forms through four selected thematic that we felt best reflected the universe and the spirit of the Maison. 

Installation view of Sequins necklace (1971)| The Art of Movement | Van Cleef & Arpels | Design Museum London | STIRworld
Installation view of Sequins necklace (1971) Image: Courtesy of Kalory Photo & Video

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