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Fri 15 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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All that glitters

Swarovski Wien is an alluring testament to the diverse nature of the Swarovski brand

All that glitters
All that glitters
The new Eclectic Panthers collection is being showcased at Swarovski Wien.
All that glitters
The new Honeycomb facade.
All that glitters
Bidonville Wall by Arne Quinze.
All that glitters
The interior is more muted.

Swarovski Wien is an alluring testament to the diverse nature of the Swarovski brand.

Perched nonchalantly on Vienna's Kaertner Strasse 24, Swarovski Wien is a dazzling celebration of the Swarovski brand.

Trademark figurines brush shoulders with elaborate chandeliers by world-class designers. Jewellery of all colours, shapes and sizes mingles with mind-boggling works of art by Belgian artist, Arne Quinze. A collection of multi-coloured crystal panthers skulk in a hidden alcove. And a shimmering installation by Japanese designer, Tokujin Yoshioka, towers overhead.

More than a store

When he meets with journalists to mark the official launch of Swarovski Wien, Markus Langes-Swarovski, great grandson of the company's founder, and a member of the executive board, is reluctant to refer to it as a store.

"It is a store - but not really a store. Yes you can interact with products financially but we have really tried to show Swarovski's various facets. People normally associate Swarovski with jewellery and figurines and, in some cases, architecture as well, in a more business-to-business context.

"Here, we have really tried to link Swarovski with the world of art and architecture, which is why we have, for the first time, introduced our architectural element for the exterior, the Honeycomb façade, which you can use as a more formal architectural element, rather than just a decorative element."

Swarovski is keen to highlight that it is more than just a ‘company of technical invention' - and the new ‘store' is a physical manifestation of that mindset. This is a space where people can learn about the brand, interact with its various product lines, and appreciate its diversity.

"We have one over-arching goal and that is to create amazement and inspiration in people. We are trying to show that we are more than just great jewellers or great producers of crystal. For us, it's very important to emphasise the poetry, and the amazement. Any kind of touch point with Swarovski should be enchanting and, therefore, inspiring," said Langes-Swarovski.

The company called on Innsbruck-based architects Hanno Schloegl and Daniel Suess to transform the ground, mezzanine and basement floors of a 19th century industrial building into an awe-inspiring, crystalline playground. The building, which is set on one of Vienna's busiest thoroughfares, is also home to a hotel.

Boxed off

The architects opted for a radical transformation of the 1,000m² space, rather than a run-of-the-mill renovation. "A traditional renovation wouldn't have been spectacular enough," noted Daniel Suess. "So we have built a building within a building."

The original interior was ripped out and replaced with a giant cube structure. The structure, which is covered with an outer glass skin, sits snugly within the boundaries of the building's original columns, creating an interesting interplay between the old and the new.

The exterior of the cube is enveloped in the Honeycomb, a sparkling surface consisting of cut crystal and thousands of LED light points which can be controlled to create a variety of effects - from glowing lava to glittering ice. "The inner cube is dissolved by light and crystal. This is a novel type of façade," Schloegl said.

Meanwhile, a series of smaller, irregularly-placed cubes extend out through the façade, breaking down the barrier between inside and out. Set at various levels, these clear glass cubes jut haphazardly into the streetscape, teasing passers-by with their curious contents. "The cube is a stage where artists can present their work and showcase their installations," Suess explained.These floating stages are currently home to installations by Belgian artist Arne Quinze. His ‘Japanese Stilthouses' combine recycled materials with crystal to create a poignant commentary on the pace of human development.

"Much of my work is related to human beings," Quinze explained. "My stilthouses are like humans. They stand on their long legs and they look very fragile, but they are very strong and they will survive, just as we humans have survived. They are full of contradictions and that is so very human.

"Then you have the eyes. I didn't want it to look like a human eye; it was important that you couldn't tell whether it was human or animal. Today, we are living in this Big Brother planet, and everybody is watching everyone, and everyone is competing, and the streets are filled with cameras," he said. "For me, it was important to create the impression of Big Brother watching you from the top of this stilthouse.

"Then you have the crystals that are reflecting and absorbing light. Together, all these things make it very human. That is how I see my installations."

Quinze was also responsible for ‘Bidonville Wall', a one-off piece of artwork that greets visitors as they step through the main entrance of the store. The fiery red installation makes a striking first impression and reiterates some of the themes introduced by the stilthouses.

Apart from this initial, intense splash of colour, the interiors of Swarovski Wien are characterised by a decidedly muted tone. Dark greys dominate, with a white floor chosen for obvious contrast. Lighting has been carefully selected and positioned to ensure that the crystals are presented in their full glory. "The inside is more muted so that the focus falls on the products themselves. The cube glitters on the outside but is darker on the inside," explained Schloegl.

Tokujin Yoshioka's Lake of Shimmer forms an arresting centerpiece, and is a unifying element that extends across all three floors. The 88m² wall is made up of 16,000 small, independent mirrors to form a silvery, shimmery surface reminiscent of a lake. Each mirror can be individually controlled to create a variety of motifs and patterns of movement.

The overall result is what Langes-Swarovski refers to as a ‘multi-level' experience. This is literal, of course, considering the three-storey space, but also metaphorical, referencing Swarov-ski's drive to ‘democratise luxury'.

"Swarovski is not technically a luxury brand but, at the same time, it is a luxury brand. We have created a very specific definition of luxury, which we call a ‘modern luxury' approach. It becomes more and more important, even in times of recession, this understanding of luxury, because luxury is not only defined by exclusivity or scarcity or price," Langes-Swarovski detailed.

"For us, luxury is more about love of detail; of being inclusive rather than exclusive; of trying to offer the best possible quality with each and every product that we create; while not excluding the elite," he concluded.

CID spoke to Markus Langes-Swarovski about the company’s new retail concept

Is this a concept that you will be rolling out to other markets?

Not necessarily. We chose Vienna because of its historical relevance for our company. The founder of the company, my great grandfather, Daniel Swarovski, came to Vienna as a young boy - he used to live in Bohemia, which was the epicentre of glass cutting, and he came to Vienna in 1883 to be exposed to the first electric exhibition.

This is where he got the inspiration to build the machines that were able to create crystals, which were basically the foundation of our company.

We also wanted to place it in Vienna because today Swarovski is very much inspired by the cultural mindset of Vienna at the end of the 19th century, where, for the first time, they tried to combine different creative disciplines - fashion, design, architecture, furniture products etc.

This is something that we've tried to permanently infuse into Swarovski. Obviously, if the concept works well, we will try and find new and strategic locations for it, but it would always be very specific to the city.

Are we going to see you moving more and more into architecture?

Well, we are taking our first steps here, with the Honeycomb façade concept. We wanted to create an architectural element rather than something purely for décor. A lot of visionary architects have played with the principal of crystal in architecture, and we have never leveraged on the principle of crystal, as opposed to the properties.

The Honeycomb is a first step, using LED technology to create something that is beyond décor. We are trying to move there slowly. Lighting and architecture are very important fields that we really want to engage in more in the future.

Are you looking to extend the brand into hotels and restaurants, or anything like that?

Well, we had a concept ready for Swarovski Hotels but we said for the time being that we are going to hold back. We're working on different kinds of entertainment formats right now.

One potential is hospitality and hotels, but we are also looking at other formats. We would like to take crystal to a more experiential level, rather than just a decorative level. We had a hotel planned and ready - it was designed by Ron Arad and it was beautiful - but it hasn't been built yet. It might be built one day.

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