Bella Neyman is a director of the Gallery at Reinstein|Ross in New York specializing in contemporary jewelry. Along with Ruta Reifen, Neyman founded Platforma, a curatorial initiative focused on exhibiting contemporary jewelry. She is also a freelance journalist whose articles on decorative arts, fashion and jewelry have appeared in the New York Times, Modern, Adornment, Fashion Theory and the Berg Encyclopedia of Fashion. She lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn, NY.
Ädellab is the Department of Jewelry + Corpus (metalsmithing) at Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm, Sweden. The first time I encountered student work from Ädellab was in Munich at the Die Neue Sammlung (The International Design Museum) during Schmuck 2012. The Schmuck show is held annually during the Internationale Handwerksmesse (International Crafts Fair). It is the most important exhibition for contemporary jewelry. The Die Neue Sammlung has the jewelry collection of the Danner Foundation on permanent display in an area known as the Danner Rotunda. The exhibition The State of Things featured the final projects of 40 Ädellab students from the past five years. Held at arguably the most important museum for contemporary jewelry during the most important annual event in the contemporary jewelry calendar, this exhibition is a strong vote of confidence for the department.
Ruudt Peters, who took over the department of metals in 2004, chose the name Ädellab, which means “precious laboratory.” This is a funny name for a program whose students aren’t as concerned with using precious materials as they are with executing ideas through jewelry and bodily ornament. Karen Pontoppidan, who became professor in 2008, replaced Peters.
The Ädellab program consists of a three-year BA course and a two-year MA course. Pontoppidan has split the undergraduate program into three different categories she calls “shake,” “awake,” and “make.” During the first year, students shake up their preconceptions and preconceived ideas about jewelry and are given the tools, physically and metaphorically, to help them succeed over the next three years. In their second year, they awake to the rich and diverse creative world of the discipline by interacting with leading jewelry makers. In their third and final year, they make, creating their first significant collection of jewelry. While the program promotes an international learning environment, the courses are taught mostly in Swedish with occasional instruction in English.
The graduate program is intended to propel the students to the next level and to help them become professional artists. It is assumed that the students, having completed the undergraduate course at Konstfack or elsewhere, are trained artists with basic metal skills. During these two years, students are encouraged to conduct hands-on research, experimenting with as many different materials as possible. The Konstfack program stresses concept and deemphasizes material hierarchy. Any material that is appropriate for the realization of the ideas is used. Therefore, in addition to the hands-on research, a strong foundation in art history and philosophy is crucial to inform the students’ work. Because the program stresses that the jewelry field is a vital art form and has an international audience, the classes are all taught in English. In fact, as artist and Konstfack graduate Katrin Spranger told me, all students must complete a 25-page essay as part of their thesis. This is the program’s way of preparing students to have the confidence and ability to work and exhibit on an international level. In fact, Spranger told me that during her time in the masters program there were eight students and only two were from Sweden. The rest were from other countries: South-Africa, Thailand, Taiwan, China, Korea, and Germany (Spranger’s home).
The Konstfack facilities are located in a former Ericsson telephone factory that was renovated in 2004. Students describe it as being really beautiful with high ceilings and large windows. Each student has their own workbench and a table for sketching. According to Spranger:
Ädellab is comprised of several metal and jewelry workshops and a big common area where all students have an individual working desk space , which is the “heart” of the department. To work at this space is most popular because students experiment and explore a lot with different materials: deconstruct, mix, build up, sew, sketch, draw, 3D model, exchange and discard ideas, think, write, chat, contemplate, and fuck up things!
There is also a departmental kitchen. It becomes a gathering place during exams when many students spend their days and nights at the school, sharing meals and ideas.
Ruudt Peters’s association with the program also helped its reputation and stature. Hanna Hedman, another Ädellab graduate, confided that Peters had a large impact on her work. “He changed my view of myself and my own abilities,” she said. This is high praise coming from a student who has established herself as a serious artist post-graduation, winning numerous prestigious awards and lecturing widely. Agnes Larsson attended both the BA and MA programs and graduated in 2007. She said that Peters’s involvement was a great turning point for the program, suggesting that under his leadership the program became more international and that it focus little on product design and more on jewelry as art.
Pontoppidan, a well-known Danish jewelry artist and former student of Otto Künzli’s, now leads the program and teaches some elective courses. She is also leaving her own mark on the program by shaking up the curriculum. Two of her courses are “Project X” and “Grim Ripper & Co.” Katrin Spranger explains:
For the Grim Ripper course, we made a field trip from Stockholm to Vienna, Austria, to experience the cult of the dead from their perspective. Other units of this course included material exploration, impromptu assignments, subject resourcing (movies, literature, etc. for inspiration), and the development of one’s self-defined “dead piece of work.” Project X was a course about a specific working method connected to problem sharing, problem solving, brain pooling, and brainstorming. Everyone was supposed to develop a body of work with the help of all course participants (with different creative backgrounds). We shared knowledge and hands-on experience. Everyone worked for a specific time for one participant and vice versa.
Workshops and critiques are another instrumental part of the program. Students were encouraged to discuss their work with their fellow students and to open themselves to constructive criticism from their peers—certainly a valuable exercise that makers too rarely have the opportunity to undertake. I was also impressed when Pontoppidan told me that none of the instructors in the program are allowed to teach full time. Rather, they are encouraged to continue making their own work.
Another activity Karen Pontoppidan and Ädellab promote is participating in exhibitions, and none are more important than The State of Things. Explaining the title of the exhibition, Pontoppidan said that:
The final-year projects undertaken by exam students are not a matter of fulfilling an educational task. Rather, they demonstrate the need for individual expression that spawns creation. The artistic expression and the work of graduates cannot be understood only in terms of intrinsic logic or the desire to understand the existence or the state of things. The work was created because an artist—a human being with experiences, feelings, dreams, and failures—wanted the pieces to be.
The State of Things had one of the most unusual installations I have seen in a long time. Multiple thick red ropes were attached to the gallery’s stark white walls. Like veins sending blood to the heart, all ropes met in a giant red knot at the center of the room on the floor. The word “Ädellab” was written in neon lights above the knot. The artists’ work was hung off of individual knots on the red ropes. The work was arranged in chronological order. Undergraduate work was shown first followed by the work of graduate students. Pontoppidan explained that the students wanted to come up with a creative way to exhibit their work and spread out into other parts of the museum. This installation symbolizes that while Ädellab is at their core, their hearts, each student has become his or her own artist and is not afraid to spread out and grow in different directions. Works by Spranger, Larsson, and Hedman were featured in The State of Things and made this point very clearly.
I thought the work featured in the exhibition was incredibly conceptual and not all of the pieces were extremely wearable. Even Spranger told me that her work “is simply not commercial enough, nor wearable on a daily basis, nor pretty.” While the definition of “pretty” is culturally contingent, I would agree that most of the work on view is not pretty. However, it is not the goal of Konstfack to promote jewelry that is pretty or commercial. Pontoppidan encourages the students to use jewelry as an expression of feeling and ideas, and they have successfully done that. Most importantly, they have experimented with materials. Judging by the variety of materials on view—horsehair, needles, iron, sweet potato, sea sponge, and crude oil—they have certainly taken that brief to heart. I am also happy to say that the student work is very different from their professors. Frequently, when a professor has a strong voice, as Pontoppidan does, the voice of the students gets lost. However, this is not the case according to the evidence in The State of Things.
One gets the feeling that even after their time at Konstfack is over, the students’ bond, like the rope, is very strong. In fact, Spranger, Larsson, and Hedman all told me that many students share studio space and workshops after graduation. Even in Munich at Schmuck, the Ädellab community of students and teachers was back together. During the opening of his own exhibition at Galerie Spektrum, Ruudt Peters waved good-bye to his guests and crossed the street to join his Konstfack family for the opening in die Neue Sammlung’s lobby.