"It’s fantastic," said Jean Paul Gaultier, after he emerged from the head of a giant.
Tuesday night in the verdant valley of Wattens, Austria, at the headquarters of the Swarovski crystal company, Gaultier, and dozens more international designers, had found themselves within the pages of a storybook fable. To mark the 120th anniversary of the company, founded by Daniel Swarovski (who was looking for a secluded place to hide the secrets of his newly invented lead crystal cutting techniques) and continuously run by five generations of Swarovskis since, more than 500 people descended on the Alpine region to visit the family’s odd and marvelous monument to their history -- Kristallwelten, which translates as Crystal Worlds.
It is part museum and part theme park, created 20 years ago to celebrate the centennial, with a warren of artist-designed concept rooms dominated by an enormous entrance, carved from the ground in the shape of a giant’s head with a waterfall spewing from its mouth (pictured, above). For the last several months, the museum, the second largest tourist destination in Austria with more than 600,000 annual visitors, had been closed during an expansion that more than doubled the size of the museum and its surrounding park. Gaultier, wearing a black leather tuxedo, was as curious as anyone.
“I came to see these wonderful spaces,” he said, and also to pay homage to the crystal maker that has been bedazzling couture creations with hundreds of thousands of crystal variations for decades. “It’s fantastic and fascinating!”
Designers had flown in from all over the world for the two-night gala.
From Amsterdam came Iris van Herpen , the avant-garde creator of 3D-printed fantasies. From London came young stars like Peter Pilotto, Chris de Vos, and Mary Katrantzou, the latter of whom arrived a bit late after touring neighboring Innsbruck, including a taste of its offerings of Schnapps. From New York came Misha Nonoo, Rosie Assoulin, and Tim Coppens.
There were also contingents of architects, artists, product designers, and costume designers, who have all used crystal significantly in their work, including three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, who made Cinderella’s latest glass slipper here with the Swarovski designers. During a black-tie dinner, she removed a part of the crystal-strewn centerpiece, a foot-long string of sharp-pointed stones, and using several discarded ribbons that had previously served as napkin rings, she fashioned a fabulous and frightening crystal bib necklace on the spot.
As Nadja Swarovski, a member of the executive board noted, the company’s expertise is cutting crystal in a precise (and still top secret) method, but its image has also been defined by designers. Like her grandfather who worked with Dior and Schiaparelli, she brought crystals to a new generation, and largely helped transform Swarovski’s image over the last 20 years from a maker of animal-shaped knickknacks to a luxury brand that blends tradition with contemporary design. During the dinner, to make that point, a performance by the Swarovski Orchestra, founded in 1900 by a group of employees and still dressed in traditional Tyrolean attire, was followed by FKA twigs, the London singer who wore a crystal embellished dress from the Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy (pictured, below).
“We usually go outside and see the world, so it’s amazing that everyone has come here,” Swarovski said. “When I started in New York, it was hard to just get the designers into the showroom in New York, when they all had this really preconceived notion of the crystal animal, but not fashion. One step further was to come here and look at everything to really understand Swarovski as a brand.”
In a sense, Swarovski has created its own fable, presenting one face to consumers through its network of more than 2,500 stores, and another to the designers who use crystals in film and fashion, but none is more intriguing than the face of the giant at the front gate. Created originally as a destination for Swarovski fans who made the pilgrimage to Wattens to see its factories, only to be turned away because no one is allowed to see inside, Kristallwelten’s curious shape was designed by the artist André Heller as a giant, in reference to his own childhood in Vienna, where he dreamed giants lived in the Schönbrunn Palace, roaming the land by night and turning into stone by day. After a life’s journey, the giant settled in Wattens to watch over its “chambers of wonders.”
Those chambers are actually a series of artist-designed rooms that are at times fantastic and at times a little kooky, capturing, in a way, Swarovski’s multifaceted image. Visitors enter a mechanical theater created by Jim Whiting, in which dress shirts swoop by on suspended tracks and pants are suspended from the ceiling in a disembodied circus; or step into a large geodesic dome, as if they were inside one of Swarovski’s crystals. Another room contains the 20-foot tall crystal Christmas tree created by Tord Boontje and Alexander McQueen for the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2003, and on Tuesday afternoon, Boontje was there describing how it came to be: “They asked us do ornaments, but McQueen said he wanted to do a tree,” he said. “He just had no inhibitions.”
One of the newest rooms was created by South Korean artist Lee Bul. “Into Lattice Sun” is a landscape of crystals and mirrors decorating a long hall that gives the illusion of visiting a city made entirely of light. Architects dream of an ideal life of glass houses and crystal palaces, Bul said. During her first visit here two years ago, she realized crystal, both reflective and transparent, can be seen as a metaphor for that life.
“It’s very poetic,” she said. “In some ways grotesque, and some ways beautiful.”