LONDON — When Emperor Napoleon III asked Baron Haussmann to clean up the stinking, narrow streets of 19th century Paris and recast the French capital as a modern, airy and elegant city, little did he know he would usher in a gilded age of invention.
Haussmann’s new Paris rapidly became an epicenter of elegance and fine geometry, of machines, mechanisms and structures that no one had seen before. Gustave Eiffel built his bridges and his famous tower, while Alberto Santos-Dumont made fantastical flying machines for racing and for zooming around Paris to all of his favorite restaurants.
Around the same time, Louis Cartier moved his workshop to central Paris and, inspired by Haussmann’s strict geometric shapes, began designing his watches and clocks with angles and fine lines to reflect the new, spare and industrial aesthetic.
“Cartier in Motion,” which is co-curated by the Design Museum’s director Deyan Sudjic, takes a look at the design revolution that happened in those years, and how Cartier’s watches and jewels were shaped and influenced by the inventors of the day.
The star of the entertaining show is Santos who, with his passion for nutty flying machines and great heights, pushed Cartier to come up with the wristwatch at a time when everyone was wearing a pocket watch on a chain.
The newfangled Cartier invention was an efficient device that allowed Santos to tell the time without having to lift his hand from the steering wheel of the airplane.
Fittingly, the centerpiece of the show is one of Santos’ Demoiselle airplanes, a spindly, one-seater creation made from bamboo tubes. It sits in the middle of an upstairs room at the museum, surrounded by cases full of more than 170 objects and artifacts. There are Cartier watches and jewelry, a vintage workbench with tools, backlit black-and-white images of Cartier and his fellow innovators, and a timeline that aims to contextualize all that was happening during the golden years of Parisian invention.
There’s even a tableau featuring replicas of the “high furniture” from Santos’ Paris apartment. He liked his guests to experience what it was like to eat and drink 10 feet off the ground.
Foster, who is best known for projects such as The Reichstag Building in Berlin, London’s Millennium Bridge, Wembley Stadium and the Great Court at the British Museum, said the Cartier project played to his obsessions.
“I’m an aviation freak,” Foster said during a walk-through. “I’m fascinated by how things are made, and I think there’s a kind of inner beauty in the making.” Foster said he’s always been moved by the “time, love and craftsmanship that goes into something that will never be seen.”
The show has been designed around “Paris and the new geometry of Haussmann. It’s also a departure from a normal exhibition because everything is movable and reusable. The show is totally independent of the space,” he said.
He was also interested in bringing the themes of urbanism, design, fashion, art and locomotives together in one show. “I’ve never been happy compartmentalizing different worlds,” he said.
Pierre Rainero, director of image, style and heritage at Cartier, said the aim was also to explore the “how” and the “why” behind the objects and that the show was the result of much in-depth research.
Highlights include the original Santos watch design from the early 20th century: Cartier’s design features straight lines, right angles and rivets that resembled the ones on the Eiffel Tower.
The show also demonstrates how Cartier has been able to accommodate changing times and tastes. There’s an updated version of the Santos from the Seventies. Waterproof with a metal bracelet, the watch can be worn day and night, to the office and during sports.
Surely, those improvements would have wowed the daring Mr. Santos.