an interview by Daria Borovkova
In 2015 Alchimia launched its new MFA program, finalized with solo-shows of its participants happening in Barcelona, Prague, Torino, Antwerp and Florence. Three out of six students, Daria Borovkova, Lavinia Rossetti and Giulia Savino were tutored by Nedda El-Asmar, an acclaimed Belgian designer and professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.
In order to introduce Nedda without being dogmatic about jewellery talk, this interview is more of a conversation between a tutor and one of her students, where both reflect, together, on jewellery and beyond.
Daria: I want to start from the very beginning of your professional career. You have studied jewellery design and silver-smithing at the Royal Academy of Arts in Anwerp and completed your education at the Royal College of Art in London. As a student did you notice any major differences between the pedagogical approaches of these two institutions?
Nedda: Well, these are two institutions that you cannot compare, particularly at that time, because the Royal College of Art has only a Master degree. And at the time of my studies at the Academy the system of Bachelor and Master didn’t even exist, it was introduced almost 10 years ago, so it was different. However, what I have learned at the Academy is to manage and to be creative with what I had, so that was stimulating. On the other hand, at The Royal College I got a lot of input through, for instance, many and different lectures, and it gave me lots of possibilities for networking afterwards. Many new technologies were available there. So I find it impossible to compare, they were two completely different types of educations in fact.
Daria: Which one do you think influenced you the most as a professional?
Nedda: The Royal College came four years after the Academy, so at that point I understood better what I was doing and going to do. We approached production and making multiples, which made me realize that I didn’t have to make all my pieces one by one by hand, or think of them as unique. There were great facilities for producing work, and that was very influential as I started to design for companies. But managing everything myself and doing handwork has been very important as well for the way I approach my projects.
Daria: As a young designer you were picked up very quickly by different companies, Hermès, Puiforcat, Villeroy & Boch, just to name a few. Was it difficult to find a balance between their guidelines and policies and establishing your personal style? Did their identity influence your practice? And how much space is there for individual creative freedom?
Nedda: I didn’t have any strict guidelines and ever since I started designing for those companies, I try to find the balance between their style and my own. It is important and challenging to keep this in mind, so that the company is happy with the outcome and that I can recognise myself in it. Up until now, to be honest, we still have a lot of freedom (since 2008 Nedda is working together with Eric Indekeu, ed). We are given projects because the companies know what kind of work we do, we have an identity. We hardly have guidelines, we are just asked to design cutlery, for example, as simple as that.
Daria: You won the ‘Belgian Designer of the Year 2007’ award amongst many more. What is essential in a well designed object for you?
Nedda: Well, it all depends on what it has to be. Something functional should be functional of course. If it’s a spoon for daily use, so not a conceptual spoon, then you have to be able to eat your soup comfortably with it. Also the proportions, weight and other aspects are important. And then the aesthetics. And for me the aesthetic part is something that makes you want to cherish your object. You should be enjoying to use it daily, to have it around you and to keep it for quite a while. It shouldn’t be just another spoon that next year you would like to replace. So in one way or another, the aesthetics should be ‘timeless’.
Daria: Do you apply then the same criteria to a jewellery piece?
Nedda: Yes. For example in the only commercial line we’ve done so far (DIAMANTI PER TUTTI, 2014) the setting is designed so as to make the diamond visible only to the owner. Thus, it can intimately speak to the memory of the person the owner received it from or maybe the moment he got it for himself. They are very simple aesthetic pieces with a story behind them. Not all my products have a story to tell, but a lot of them do.
Daria: You teach at the Jewellery Department of the Royal Academy in Antwerp since nine years. And you don’t design jewellery, or barely. Is your approach to jewellery making, as a teacher, similar to the process of cutlery design, for example? In some way they share something, they are both body related.
Nedda: I see both, jewellery and cutlery, as some sort of decoration, be it for the body or the table. Both are also body related, but a spoon is still more functional, because it has to fit well in the hand and when you put it in your mouth, it has to be comfortable. When it comes to teaching, I don’t think it makes any difference to me, because I’ve always been surrounded and educated by jewellery designers. If I were educated as a product designer then I think my approach would have been different.
Daria: I find it very interesting that you can bring your knowledge of designing objects into jewellery thinking and tutoring.
Nedda: What I find interesting is doing multiples and working with others, here I mean designing and making everything together as a team in class. And I think it’s something you have to offer to your students so at least they understand, vividly, that there are other ways, other than making unique pieces. It’s an exercise that I consider quite important.
Daria: Since you teach in a Jewellery Department, do you have your own definition of what jewellery is nowadays?
Nedda: There are so many different ways of approaching jewelry today. You have artists, like Ai Weiwei or Erwin Wurm, who are commissioned to design jewellery. Then there are, of course, the jewellery designers and makers: some of them are very conceptual, others are making more body related pieces. What jewellery is and if it belongs to fine arts or crafts is a discussion that I don’t find necessary anymore.
Daria: But do you see any limitations? Honestly, anything can be a jewellery piece?
Nedda: For example, almost anything can be a brooch. In theory, you just need to put a pin on the back. And that’s where the limitations can start. You can feel if the pin is really part of the piece or not. And if it’s not, then why should it be a brooch? At that point, let it be what it’s good for.
Daria: And what if the jewellery piece is absolutely not wearable and not even meant for the body?
Nedda: If it’s too heavy or too difficult to wear, it’s fine, it has its place as well. I wouldn’t see any problem even if it was made just for a photo-shoot or if it was meant to exist as an ephemeral statement on the body.
Daria: You tutor only MFA students. Can you talk about this role?
Nedda: For me it’s about finding out with the students what they really want to do, what they want to express, to coach them along this path and to support them. Whether it’s something conceptual or very commercial, I motivate students to go deeper and do something that is different from what is already out there, because there are always possibilities to develop projects in a much more thorough way. What I find important is that by the time they graduate, even if they achieved only half of what they hoped for, they know what they want to do and how to continue.
Daria: You teach, give workshops and develop design projects in many different countries, in Europe and the Middle East. Do you think that design and jewellery, as disciplines, reflect the process of globalisation and that they are increasingly losing their cultural specificities?
Nedda: Now everything is globalized. And this is happening to jewellery design as well. The community of contemporary makers is very small. Many of them come to Europe to study and they start to reflect on their cultural identity, there is a lot of mutual influence.
Daria: Your roots are from a totally different cultural context than Belgium – from Palestine. Did you ever directly address your cultural heritage in any of your projects?
Nedda: I do it when necessary and when it makes sense. Like in the case of a water pipe that was commissioned to me by a French company called Airdiem. The same goes for Zeri Crafts, whom we’ve designed incense burners for. In both projects there is a cultural aspect that I know very well, also because these products are sold in the Gulf States, and so that link and that feeling to it is coherent with the object and its aims.
Daria: How did it feel to be working on these cross-cultural projects?
Nedda: It’s part of me, so it’s natural. I think if somebody asked me to do something for a Japanese market, I would have to do much more research, it would be different.
Daria: What inspires you?
Nedda: It all depends. It can be a word or just the object itself, it can be the shape, it can be nature. For me it can be anything!
Daria: Are you inspired by food and cooking since you design cutlery and many other objects which are somehow related to this?
Nedda: Well, maybe indirectly. The projects I’m doing are often food related. I think it’s just the way I work – I like noticing, trying out and mixing things. For example, when I designed Appetize (a set of forks and spoons for appetizers) it was because at receptions I always wondered why there was just one type of spoon with a bent handle for serving appetizers. And that is how I came to the idea of making something different.
Daria: Then what about one of your iconic pieces – a condom holder. How did you come up with the idea? What is the story behind it?
Nedda: I’ve designed that in 1991-1992. It was the project for a multiple that we had to do at the Royal College of Art. We had to look for a product that was a gap in the market. And at that moment AIDS had just been revealed. Using condoms had to become a part of your daily hygiene, like brushing your teeth, so everybody had to carry them. And I thought that you had elegant powder boxes, cigarette cases, etc., so I decided to make something precious for condoms, because love is a beautiful thing, why should you have to hide it?
Daria: You have recognizable aesthetics – simple, elegant and very sophisticated. Some define it as feminine. How do you feel about it?
Nedda: Well, maybe it’s just because people like to put labels, I also have pieces that are not that feminine. Sometimes I wonder, if there was no name next to my objects would you still refer to them as oriental and feminine?
Daria: And when it comes to jewellery, do you think that contemporary jewellery is gender specific?
Nedda: It’s the same situation as with globalization. There is an androgynous nature that is very prominent today, whereas before it was more gender-specific. I think this all has to do with the development of modern society and a certain degree of cosmopolitanism.
Daria: I have also noticed that many young jewellers today don’t limit themselves to jewellery making, but they also create objects and use other mediums of artistic expression. Why do you think this happens? Is it historically rooted or is it a recent phenomenon?
Nedda: I think it has to do with the fact that everyone wants to try a bit of everything. And in terms of education as well, some schools became some sort of a mixture of all departments. Back in the days it was different, you finished the Academy and you knew what you would be doing for the years to come. Nowadays everything has changed. And it’s not making things easier, on the contrary, it’s making life more difficult. A lot of people are very confused and I think that might be one of the reasons why people try a bit of everything, because some are not confident enough.
Daria: The contemporary jewellery world is very small and especially there are very few public and private institutions devoted to it, while the number of students and practitioners is growing. What strategies do you suggest your students to adopt in order to be noticed and find their own place?
Nedda: Well, it all depends on what your work is like. Each time there’s a different strategy. I think what is important is to understand that your direction could change or shift afterwards, but to stay focused and not try to do too much at the same time.
Daria: And finally, can you share the best advice you were given during your studies which you still find relevant today in your work?
Nedda: Well, my tutor at the Academy Jean Lemmens once said that the most important thing is to look around. Look and look and look. And continue looking. I think that’s what is important, to look around. Look at what is happening, be eager to learn. I love seeing what others are doing, how they are doing it, be it in Fine Arts or other fields. It’s about knowing what is going on and not setting boundaries. It’s about absorbing, about keeping your eyes open and being open to everything that passes by and try to do something with it.
Daria Borovkova is a russian Florence-based jewelry designer. She has an international background and working experience as a visual merchandiser and interior designer and in 2015 graduated from the MFA program of Alchimia. Her jewellery has been exhibited in Europe and in the United States.