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Cartier in Motion at the Design Museum: A Timely Exhibition

The ever-evolving world of Cartier is explored at the Design Museum in an eye-opening new exhibition curated by Lord Norman Foster. Laura McCreddie-Doak finds out more from director Deyan Sudjic

Like so many historic jewellers that line New Bond Street, people often think they know Cartier. Some merely associate it with its Love bangle, while, for others, it is synonymous with horological creations such as the Santos or the Tank. 

The lesser known aspects of the French house and Louis Cartier, grandson of the founder, will be brought to the fore when the Design Museum opens its new exhibition, Cartier in Motion. The jeweller’s history will be explored through objects, models and graphics, with a timeline that runs from 1875 right through to the present day, charting the influences that helped shape Cartier into what it is today. 

It has been divided into three themes – focusing on Paris, the avant-garde and the advent of the wristwatch in turn – but will also consider the company’s post-war evolution, the importance of craftsmanship, advancements in aviation and how this inspired Louis Cartier.

“Cartier has an impressive track record of working with museums around the world,” explains Deyan Sudjic, director of the museum, which recently moved to the Commonwealth Institute on High Street Kensington.

“The house has a remarkable collection and an intriguing history. But what fascinated me most was the way it continues to make objects that people value at a time when the digital revolution has made so many things we once used to measure our lives redundant.” The exhibition has been designed and curated by Lord Norman Foster, the British architect responsible for the Gherkin. Lord Foster has not only brought together notable Cartier creations and set them within the artistic, architectural and design contexts of their times, but has also directed a film comprising historical footage, which will form an important part of the display.

“Norman Foster is fascinated by the connections between the pioneers of early flight and engineering – Alberto Santos-Dumont, Gustave Eiffel and Louis Cartier,” says Sudjic. “They knew each other and were looking for new ways of doing things. Norman has recreated a dinner party that Santos-Dumont staged in his Paris apartment with specially made tables and chairs tall enough to reach the ceiling. He was trying to give his guests an idea of what flight would be like.”

It was this association and friendship with Santos-Dumont that led to Cartier’s first wristwatch. Cartier gave Santos-Dumont a watch that he could wear on his wrist when flying, which allowed him to keep both hands on the plane’s controls. Replacing the traditional pocket watch, its Art Deco design incorporates modern industrial elements. 

It is without question an integral part of Cartier’s history, so rather than simply illustrate this momentous piece of horological history with a display showing a collection of vintage Santos watches, Lord Foster has gone one better. A full-size replica of the Demoiselle – the aircraft Santos-Dumont flew around the Eiffel Tower – will take centre stage. “Getting it into the building wasn’t easy,” says Sudjic, wryly.

Slightly easier to install were the administrative archives, which contain a goldmine of fascinating information, from the original drawings of key creations to the account books and patents. These sources provide a rare insight into how this now-legendary name did things, and lay bare the intimate relationships Cartier had with incredibly influential people, such as the Rothschild family and the Russian tsars.

Cartier in Motion also reveals much about Louis Cartier and his place among an elite circle of pioneers during the 20th century, and how he created everyday accessories to cater to this flamboyant society. Talk of planes and quirky dining chairs might cause watch enthusiasts some concern, but they shouldn’t worry because, even for Sudjic, it all comes back to the timepieces. 

“The Santos is the key: it was Cartier’s response to the practical needs of his friend. A whole new category of objects was invented. 

“It was really a kind of flight instrument, so the simplicity and the frank expression of the details came naturally,” he continues. “They reflected Cartier’s own tastes, as well as the modernism in architecture and design that was building up in the early 20th century.” In scope and in scale, this ambitious and unique exhibition, which runs almost the full length of Cartier’s history, feels like a fitting tribute to a maison that was once described by King Edward VII as the “jeweller of kings… and the king of jewellers”.

"London is a city which is so creative and inventive, it is wonderful to share Cartier’s extraordinary innovation and craftsmanship and draw the parallels between the development of a watch and the architectural and product design within a city that echoes these values," said Laurent Cartier, managing director of Cartier UK. "Cartier has always been more than just a jewellery brand; it is a house of values, tradition, and spirit and while our history is what drives us to tell our stories, we are excited to have the opportunity to share this with everyone."

Until 28 July, 224-238 Kensington High Street, W8, www.designmuseum.org