Interview by Spencer Bailey | Portrait by Delfino Sisto Legnani
In the seemingly old-world business of crafting crystals, making them relevant—and even fresh—requires an inventive imagination. Nadja Swarovski, a fairy godmother of sorts in the industry, has such a mind. Since joining her family company in 1995—100 years after her great-great-grandfather, Daniel, established it—she has helped turn it into one of the most forward-thinking and fashionable crystal makers on earth.
Though the Swarovski brand had once collaborated with the likes of Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, by the late 20th century it had practically disappeared from the world of fashion, and until the early aughts it had not really entered the contemporary design sphere. Within her first few years at the company—following stints at Gagosian Gallery and the fashion public-relations firm Eleanor Lambert—Nadja actively worked to reconnect Swarovski to the worlds of fashion and design, even when some on the board disagreed with her ideas.
Often, she has captured the zeitgeist. In the late ’90s, with the help of the magazine editor Isabella Blow, she enlisted fashion designers like Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen for collaborations, asking them to find new and innovative ways to use Swarovski’s crystals in their pieces. (She also supported many of those she worked with financially.) In 2002, Nadja launched Swarovski Crystal Palace, for which contemporary designers including Tom Dixon, Ross Lovegrove, and Gaetano Pesce have since created groundbreaking work. More recently, in 2007, she created the Atelier Swarovski jewelry line. Zaha Hadid, Christopher Kane, and Karl Lagerfeld are among those to make pieces for it, and this fall Viktor & Rolf is releasing a collection.
Nadja continues to turn in new directions. Last year, she founded the Swarovski Foundation—an independent charity for philanthropy and corporate giving—to focus on three main areas: “culture and creativity,” “wellbeing,” and “environment.” The foundation recently saw the completion of its first two major projects: the opening of a Swarovski Waterschool in Brazil that teaches water-management skills to youths, and the restoration of a statue on the cupola of the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. Next spring will see the culmination of the foundation’s biggest venture to date: a “learning center” at the new Design Museum in London, which is being designed by the Rem Koolhaas–founded firm OMA with interiors by British architect John Pawson. Though the initiatives may seem disparate, they’re all rooted in some way in Nadja’s life story—as well as the stories of her family.
Surface met with Nadja during the opening weekend of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale—where Koolhaas designed the Swarovski crystal–encrusted entrance to the Monditalia exhibition—to discuss her Austrian upbringing, American education, and ambitious role in her family business.
What was it like to grow up in the Swarovski family, and then to come to America as a young girl to attend boarding school?
I grew up in Wattens, Austria—a tiny town that then had 6,000 inhabitants. My aunts and uncles’ houses neighbored ours. It was a really tight community. I walked to school through a field. Eventually, I went to school in Antwerp, where I took the bus every day. That was my first exposure to city life. At age 13, I went to boarding school, at St. Mark’s in Massachusetts. At first it seemed fantastic because suddenly I was in an environment where there were international students—from South America, Korea, all over. Because my mother is American, I thought, “Let’s explore what else there is!”
I was really enamored with the concept of a New England boarding school. I hate to admit it, but I saw the movie Class starring Rob Lowe, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, that’s where I want to go.” Boy, was that a rough awakening. Boarding school was not at all what the movie conveyed. [Laughs]
St. Mark’s was terrible. Let’s put it this way: These kids were not like my Midwestern American grandparents, the type of American I was used to, so gentle and so kind. These were bratty kids. I was there because I wanted to be there, and they were all sent there by their parents, often because the parents got a divorce. I’m half American, but I grew up in Austria, so my English wasn’t good. It took me twice as long to do my homework because I had to translate everything. People made fun of me because I had [Jean-Luc] Godard and Gauguin posters in my room.
It sounds rough. But it does seem to have had a profound impact on you.
When I was there, there was this rape. Seven boys were involved. Every single day during the episode we had a school meeting, and the dean of students would cry. Nobody was talking to each other, and the school split into two camps. One side was defending the guys implicated in the rape; the other side was for the girl. It was so sad. I felt I had entered this totally depressing cloud. But I was like, “I don’t want my parents to take me out of here. I want to stick it out.” Which in hindsight, I totally regret. I graduated in 1988.
At which point you moved to Texas to attend Southern Methodist University.
My father had business in Dallas, so I thought, “Let’s try the South.” Looking back, I would have done things so differently. I would have stayed in Europe for school, would have probably gone to university somewhere in New England. In any case, every experience that’s shocking allows you to learn so much about yourself.
Dallas was amazing, though, and is really where I discovered my passion for art history. I had the most incredible teacher, Alessandra Comini. While I was her student, she was given the Grand Decoration of Honor by the Austrian government. After studying there, I went to New York, did a master’s program at Sotheby’s, ended up at Gagosian Gallery, and then eventually worked in public relations under Eleanor Lambert, which was amazing. She was 92.
You then joined the family business. What made you decide to do that?
With Eleanor, I was representing Valentino and Missoni. When the Missoni family came over to New York, I was to take care of them, because I was European. That was really my “aha” moment. I thought, “Wait, my grandfather used to tell me these stories about working with amazing couturiers. Where did that Swarovski connection to fashion go?” At that time—1995—Swarovski was perceived to be about swans and ducks.
In 1999, you were involved in the famed partnership of Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen. How did that come about?
My family gave me permission to connect with the fashion industry. My father was just like, “Good luck.” Then he sat next to Isabella Blow at a lunch in the English countryside. This was a time when people didn’t really know Swarovski. Isabella asked him, “What do you do?” My father, who was in charge of production for 44 years at Swarovski, always had crystals in his pocket. He was like, “Oh, I make these”—and took out some crystals. She said, “Oh, but those are Swarovski crystals.” He was like, “How did you know?!” He was expecting her to say, “Oh, nice rhinestones.”
My father later called me and said, “I met this woman, come and meet her.” So I flew to London, and we met. She brought me these Julien Macdonald samples that used nylon. Julien made a dress out of knit nylon, and it had sequins on it. She said, “These pieces would look so much better in crystal.” This then turned into a project with Philip Treacy—and then Alexander McQueen.
I flew each of them to the manufacturing plant in Austria and showed them the product. Alexander McQueen needed financial support, so we gave him that, plus any product he wanted. I have to say, if I could credit one person for reintroducing Swarovski into the fashion arena, it would be McQueen.
What are your memories of him?
He was totally shy. Totally quiet. He would just sit there and look at things. It’s almost like that quietness led to his explosion on the catwalk.
At the time, I lived between New York and London. I did the New York–London stretch for one and a half years—one week in New York, one week in London. I built up two offices at the same time. Eventually, it was just easier to be in London, closer to Austria. Then the request was: “Can you please come back to Austria?” I thought, “No way!” Once you see gold, you don’t want to go back to silver. For me, it could only be New York or London.
In 2002, you launched Swarovski Crystal Palace, for which you started working with designers and architects. What made you want to go into design?
I thought chandeliers were an interesting category for Swarovski. I wanted to put an existing product into the hands of cutting-edge designers who could make it more relevant. We worked with Ilse Crawford, and she coined the “Crystal Palace” concept. The company said, “No, why would you want to do anything with the chandelier? The chandelier is dead.” I was like, “That’s precisely why. As long as Swarovski is creating chandelier components, we have to promote them.”
In the same way you can credit McQueen with reigniting a Swarovski connection to fashion, maybe Ilse is the person you could credit for bringing the brand into contemporary design.
Yeah, Ilse or Tord Boontje. The company said not to do it, but I did it anyway. My saving grace was that Tord’s chandelier made the front cover of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. [Laughs]
For more of the interview with Nadja Swarovski, order your copy of the September issue here.