Curated by Lord Foster, a new London show explores Cartier’s pioneering design spirit

Man standing in front of a plane
Lord Foster photographed at Le Bourget Museum in Paris for Wallpaper* Precious Index with a restored Santos-Dumont designed Demoiselle monoplane.
(Image credit: Albrecht Fuchs​)

Lord Foster is in a buoyant mood. Having designed and curated a new show at the Design Museum in London, ‘Cartier in Motion’, he is still reveling in the delights of aviation and horological history on display. The exhibition charts the evolution of the French company’s fine watchmaking alongside other key innovations of the early-20th century, all pivoting around the character of Louis Cartier, a major point of connection in the evolution of the modern world.

It’s unsurprising that Foster has an interest in the mythos and romance of early aviation, an age when aviators were inventors, craftsmen, test pilots and engineers all rolled into one. Fabled for his love of all things mechanical, Foster’s own image as an architect is burnished by his helicopter-flying, classic-car-restoring persona, not to mention the cutting-edge edifices his studio delivers with machinelike precision. He admits that ‘my association with Cartier began with this project. Deyan Sudjic [director of the Design Museum] asked if I was interested. I’ve always been fascinated by the links between art, architecture, aviation and design.’

The story of Louis Cartier is inseparably intertwined with the dawn of modernism. ‘I was drawn into Cartier’s circle, people like the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont,’ says Foster. The legend goes that, although he didn’t invent the idea of a wristwatch, Cartier was asked by Santos-Dumont to solve the problem of his pocket watch. ‘The wrist strap was designed to stop him fumbling in his waistcoat pocket while he was trying to control an aircraft.’

Cartier’s pioneering design became the Santos de Cartier, a watch that remains in production today. The pilot himself is one of the exhibition’s focal points, with one of his surviving Desmoiselle monoplanes at the heart of the display. Foster is in his element talking about this incredible machine, first flown in 1907. ‘I didn’t expect to find such a truly beautiful object,’ he says of his first encounter with the newly restored aircraft, tucked away in the vintage section at Paris’ Le Bourget Museum. ‘Look at the detail,’ he enthuses. ‘Look at that vertical strut!’ It’s no great stretch to draw parallels between the Desmoiselles’ successful hybrid of art and engineering and some of the great early works of high-tech architecture.

Cartier watches in a museum

Installation view of the ‘Cartier in Motion’ exhibition at the Design Museum.

(Image credit: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners)

These parallels shape Foster’s curatorial approach to the exhibition. ‘There are connections between the city, the purity of line, the architecture, the engineering, all leading up through the romance and the glamour, culminating in the craftsmanship,’ he says. The progression is laid bare in a massive timeline, a mighty research work that joins the aesthetic dots between art, architecture, fashion, engineering, auto and aviation design, and practically every other facet of early-20th century culture.

In among it all is the figure of Louis Cartier, a man for whom the machine held an irresistible lure. ‘Cartier in Motion’ captures these obsessions and the products he created, all set against the backdrop of an age of technological wonder. In addition to the Santos watch, there was the Tank model, another classic, which drew inspiration from the brutish mechanicals and simple form of those early war machines.

Foster and his team are responsible, too, for the staging of the show. The cabinets, which draw on the exquisitely detailed jewellery cases used for display in Cartier’s many stores, are modular and can be adapted should the show travel. Manufactured by Italian museum specialist Goppion, they include curved glass edges and a system that allows freestanding or interlocking displays to create the sense of a grand store, a treasure trove of objects. Spectacular centrepieces act as anchors – the Desmoiselle plane, a model of the Eiffel Tower, and reproductions of the precarious high-rise seating designed by Santos-Dumont to give his dinner guests ‘an aviator’s view’.

Foster suggests that the specially commissioned models in the show have a life beyond the exhibition, becoming limited-edition objects that can travel in their vitrines to Cartier’s global stores. There’s a notable precedent. Back in the 1930s, the Cartier atelier made spectacularly elegant models, such as The Question Mark, a sterling silver scale replica of Point d’Interrogation, the first aircraft to fly from Paris to New York in 1930. This meticulous model was gifted to the Rockefeller Center by France.

The show reiterates Paris’ status as the cradle of modernity, not just in the traditional sense of avantgarde art, architecture and design, but also in terms of manufacturing, engineering and innovation. The 1889 exhibition hailed by Eiffel’s Tower gave visitors a new viewpoint on urbanism. For the first time, they could look down on a city that was not medieval and organic, but organised along rational lines by Haussmann’s grand boulevards. The visual synchronicity with Cartier’s geometric watch forms is hard to resist.

The show also includes three films, covering ‘the purity of line’, Cartier’s connections and what Foster calls the ‘nobility of making’. There will be more than 160 timepieces, as well as posters, marketing material and technical drawings from the Cartier archives. It is a rich evocation of an era hovering on the cusp of something new. ‘The pure geometry of what Cartier was doing in watchmaking anticipated the pure forms of the Bauhaus – however subliminally,’ says Foster, who hopes to ‘open visitors’ eyes to the birth of many of the things we now take for granted’. Can the show attract an audience beyond those who only know Cartier for watches and jewellery? Time will tell.

As originally featured in the Precious Index, our new watches and jewellery supplement (see W*218)

Two photographs, left is a tail of a plane and right is an old portrait of airplane designer

Left, detail of the restored Demoiselle, on show at the Design Museum. Right, Alberto Santos-Dumont in his Demoiselle (1909), the world’s first industrialised aeroplane design. © Cartier

(Image credit: Albrecht Fuchs, TBC)

Old airplane in a museum

The restored Demoiselle was dismantled at the Le Bourget museum in Paris and transported to the Design Museum, where Lord Foster has made it the star of the ‘Cartier in Motion’ show.

(Image credit: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners​)

Drawings of planes

Lord Norman Foster’s original sketches for the exhibition. Foster and his team were also responsible for the staging of the show. The cabinets are manufactured by Italian museum specialist Goppion. Courtesy of Norman Foster

(Image credit: TBC)

Portrait of Warhol wearing a Cartier watch

Left, a 1970s Polaroid self-portrait by Andy Warhol wearing his Cartier Tank. Right, ’Tank’ watch (platinum, gold, sapphire cabochon, leather). © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc; Vincent Wulveryck, Collection Cartier. Courtesy of Cartier

(Image credit: TBC)

Gold Apollo 11 space craft

The Lunar Excursion Module (exact replica) made by Cartier in 1969 and presented as a gift to the US in celebration of the Apollo 11 space mission (gold, black lacquer, enamel, engraved). Courtesy of Nils Herrmann, Collection Cartier. © Cartier

(Image credit: TBC)

Gold charm bracelet

‘Gremlin’ charm bracelet (gold, enamel), 1942–43. Courtesy of Nick Welsh, Collection Cartier. © Cartier

(Image credit: TBC)

Old drawing and a carter barrel watch

Left, composer Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky was a passionate aficionado of the Cartier Tonneau (barrel) watch. Right, other objects on display include a 1930s paper knife with watch (silver, gold, agate, lapis lazuli). Courtesy of Collection Particulière. © Succession Picasso; Nick Welsh

(Image credit: TBC)

Cartier clock with pens

Among the items chosen by Lord Foster to display is this desk set with clock by Cartier Paris for Cartier New York, 1931 (silver, gold, nephrite, black lacquer, enamel). Courtesy Nick Welsh, Collection Cartier. © Cartier

(Image credit: TBC)

Cartier watches

Left, the ‘Tank à guichets’ jumping-hour wristwatch, designed in 1928 (gold, leather). Right, ‘Santos de Cartier’ self-winding wristwatch, designed in 1978 (gold, steel, spinel). Courtesy of Vincent Wulveryck, Collection Cartier. © Cartier

(Image credit: TBC)


‘Cartier in Motion’ is on view until 28 July. For more information, visit the Design Museum website


Design Museum
224-238 Kensington High Street
London W8 6AG


Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.