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.

Installation view of the ‘Cartier in Motion’ exhibition at the Design Museum. Photography: 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)​

RELATED TOPICS: WATCHES, DESIGN MUSEUM, CARTIER, LONDON EXHIBITIONS