Interview by Ursula Lake
Photography by Helene Sandberg
Make chats to the Danish jewellery designer, Maria Black to find out what makes her tick.
Q. Tell us about you!
A. I’m Danish by birth and grew up in the suburbs outside Copenhagen. It was just my mother and me, she was very young so she took me everywhere: music festivals, concerts, street parties, you name it. When I was fifteen we finally moved to Copenhagen (to the red-light district no less!) and I loved it. It was rough but somehow innocent back then. All the drunks, hookers, punters, students and artists were mingling in this heaving pot of chaos. I’ve considered myself a ‘city girl’ ever since.
At eighteen, as soon as I finished school I moved to Dublin. My dad’s Irish and I have a lot of family there, so it was something I really wanted to do. Since then I have travelled and lived abroad extensively. I recently relocated back to London. l actually started my company from London in 2010, so it’s a sweet return.
Q. How old were you when you realised your love of jewellery and you wanted to make a carer out of designing it?
A. I discovered my passion for jewellery as an accident. I was living in Ibiza at the time and somehow I ended up working in Las Dalias market selling silver jewellery and at night I worked in a jewellery store in Bambuddha Grove selling high-end jewellery. I started wishing I could change a few things on the designs and so I slowly started making my own. There were quite a lot of feathers I have to say, but it was Ibiza after all, so I went with the flow!
When I returned to Copenhagen someone mentioned I should apply for an apprenticeship as a goldsmith. I just hadn’t thought that was ever an option for me, it was like a light bulb being switched on and I immediately applied for a course and spent the next four years on the bench learning and training to become a goldsmith. I never had any design training, that’s not really what the course focused on, but I can build anything, so I am essentially a designer/maker.
These days I spend more time with my pencil than I do on the bench. However, when my initial drawings and sketches are down on paper, I still feel the need to go to the bench and make a sample. Eight times out of ten I change something. The hands just know what’s best!
Q. What inspires you and your work?
A. I’m always observing and translating just about everything I see into jewellery. Drawing is an amazing tool. When I was a kid I would have this thing I did before going to sleep. I would close my eyes and then conjure up an image in my head which I would then study in every detail. For instance if I had seen a picture of a tractor, I would mentally walk around it and study the details of the engine down to rust spots or dirt on the tyres: literally ‘drawing’ 3D in my mind. I started drawing more ‘professionally’ as a young teen.
When I draw my mind starts to drift, and all of a sudden I look down on the paper and think, where did that come from? You can make conscious design choices later in the process, but the initial idea development is very much a basic instinct. I always start with a mood-board, but as I work I might abandon it entirely to pursue another idea that just resonates more. Someone once asked me if I ever run out of ideas. But practice makes perfect.
The more you design the better you get and the ideas multiply exponentially. It’s kind of crazy, I often joke I could design for five brands at the same time.
Q. How personal is your jewellery? Do you design everything for yourself, do you have a muse in mind?
A. I used to have muses- fashion icons, musicians etc. I was also keen on architecture and everyday objects, but where I am right now I think more of the jewellery as tiny sculptures and I focus on the lines and the feel I want it to have. All my jewellery is extremely personal and I gravitate heavily to art and design movements for my inspiration now.
My designs have evolved a lot through the years, as I have changed and grown up. They reflect my state of mind, what I’m interested in or obsessed by, and as I matured and my tastes changed, so did my designs.
I soon observed an unconscious frame of mind in the fashion industry. A designer is not supposed to stray from the look established in early collections, but rather re-invent the same look over and over. The challenge is when it’s done too many times people are bored, you are bored, but if you stray from the look, the perception is that ‘you’ve lost your DNA’ and they struggle to remove you from the box they had you in. But we have to evolve, especially as designers. That is the nature of creativity. Every time I re-invent myself, I have a small knot of fear in my stomach, but I can’t help it. I couldn’t possibly have done this for ten years if I had to repeat myself.
Q. Fashion can be very fickle, do you follow trends when it comes to designing jewellery or do you follow your own instinct?
A. You mustn’t follow trends consciously unless you are a copy-based brand. Everybody in the fashion industry gets exposed to the same imagery and trends and a lot of people follow the same trend agencies, so it’s quite natural that the industry gravitates in the same direction sometimes. I don’t follow trend agencies for that very reason. Truly you do not have to follow fashion to be inspired. You need to convey a feeling in your design and create a look. Attention to detail and great craftsmanship is also a winner. I never try to be current or cool, that’s too stressful and since I design 12-16 months ahead of launches, there is no way of telling what might be ‘in’ that far ahead in time. I’m not clairvoyant, but I follow my instincts.
Q. What advice would you give to any budding jewellery designers or creatives about starting your own business?
A. You have to be very honest with yourself and have a resilient mindset. By this I mean you have to be able to assess yourself and your designs for strengths and weaknesses. If you are bad at finance and sales, team up with a partner who’s good at that. You need to know where you want to go on all levels so you are focused. Design, brand DNA, communication, content, everything has to paint your portrait with emotion and attitude.
If you are trying to access the fashion market with designs that already exist you will have a tough time unless you have some clever marketing plan or pricing strategy. Designing and doing business are two very different things. Business can kill the joy of designing if you are not careful. On the upside, you are rewarded with the very real satisfaction of building a universe and seeing your ‘babies’ adopted by an army of beautiful women and men and that is thrilling!
Q. Tell us about your two homes in Copenhagen and London. What do you like about these cities?
A. Four years ago I moved from London to Copenhagen, but I have actually recently relocated back to London. I love both cities intensely and passionately. They are very different and that’s why I need both in my life. Copenhagen is excessively laid back, and London can feel speeding on an autobahn in a Subaru! Frightening but also very exhilarating, it keeps you alert and curious. London sort of chews you up and spits you out sometimes; that’s what happened to me four years ago. I felt as though I needed a slower pace and easy life in Copenhagen. The city is insanely beautiful and there’s everything from art, urban street life, secret parties, tucked away open-air bars and restaurants by the water, beaches, (yes, there are beaches five minutes from the centre) and hot tub boats pottering around the canals. My British friends describe it as being the love child between the Hamptons and Disney Land. But, I always get restless after a few years in Copenhagen. I have a feeling I’ll always live between both cities.
Q. What do you think you would you be doing if you weren’t designing jewellery?
A. I don’t know. I feel like I have no other skills! But I’m fairly sure I would always try to make my interests my living and I would definitely start my own company. I build a business case around every idea I get. It’s a hobby my boyfriend and I have. We’ll spend hours hashing out ideas, epic brainstorms usually fuelled by wine. So far, hypothetically we’ve created an online curtain company, an online fancy dress/costume company, three concept restaurants and two other jewellery brands!
Q. When you are dressing, what comes first, the clothes or the jewellery?
A. The clothes, then I add jewellery to make it look chicer and hopefully more look more expensive than it is. I have a minimum of about seventeen pieces of jewellery on me at any given time! I’m not one of those people who have a look and stick to it. I used to dress in all black and now I only wear colour. I tried for a Mediterranean summer look last summer and ended up dressing like a housemaid! It happened to me in Italy, I was going for the Jackie O look with a scarf around my head but I failed! When I went to Japan I was inspired by their soft tones and earthy hues, so I gave that a go and mixed it up with pastels. I call it experimenting, sometimes I fail, and sometimes I win. It’s not that I’m chasing style, but you dress every day your entire life, so I think that surely you have to try to spice it up somehow.
Q. The theme of this issue is strength. What do you think is strong about you and what makes you stronger?
A. Self-esteem makes me strong. Confidence works as a door opener, but self-esteem is what gets me through the door. Strength for me is also very closely related to acceptance. When I accept my situation I can quickly find a way forward instead of fighting. This is an attitude I can remember having since I was a child and I’m really grateful for it because it means I can adapt extremely quickly to disappointments, failed attempts and personal upset and not get stuck in the emotion. It doesn’t mean I give up, but I am capable of being as happy with plan C as with plan A.
To see more of Marias collection, please visit www.maria-black.com