On this sunny afternoon, we have an appointment at Urwerk to meet Martin Frei and talk design. A vast question that excites us.
If you want to feel a certain comfort in discovering a brand, the first step is to know its history and the second is to understand the design of the pieces. Because if you understand it, you’ll be much better able to appreciate it.
And if you want to understand Urwerk‘s design, nothing better than to meet Martin Frei, its co-founder and designer.
You see us, one sitting across from the other, with this long table separating us. It is like the boundary that separates the teacher from the student. It is not just a flat surface on which my notepad and our coffees are placed. It becomes the space on which Martin’s world will unfold. Talking with a creator to try to understand his art is to dive into a universe that he describes to us to try to capture its essence. For the moment, we are only in contact with what his universe creates.
What makes an Urwerk watch, an Urwerk watch? What sparks its creativity and how does it transform its creativity into something tangible? Does the width of the table represent the distance between us and the answers to these questions?
Today, I won’t be your teacher. We are two students. Two curious people driven by a desire to understand. You are here by my side, trying like me to understand and assimilate what our teacher has to share with us.
“You see the UR 101 was inspired by the Millennium Falcon, which in turn was inspired by a hamburger with two salad leaves coming out of it.” We may not get the answers we want. We’ll have to deconstruct and look between the lines for the foods that will feed our hunger.
As a young man, he babysat a young boy. At the bottom of the garden there was a river in which a water demon resided. Story the father had told his child so he wouldn’t get too close to the edge, thus preventing him from falling.
One day Martin saw the little boy return soaked and panicked. He had unintentionally fallen and now he was afraid the water demon would come and get him. To get rid of him, he asked Martin to draw it and as soon as this was done, he went to get a pair of scissors to cut off the head. It was his way of freeing himself from the demon and getting rid of it. This is what drawing allows. The human being has the capacity to draw signs, symbols and to give them a meaning.
If it allows to illustrate a meaning, the drawing also allows to illustrate our imagination. It was his way of giving life to the world created by his imagination. By observing what surrounds him, by visiting the laboratory of his physicist father, his imaginary world could leave his head to land on paper.
What a pleasure to feel like you’re its creator. You shape your world as you wish. You are the master and it obeys you, if you want the cars to fly, they will fly. Let your will be done! Once you have tasted this freedom, you can’t get rid of it.
When he shares his stories with us, he transports us. We are with him in Zurich and then in Lucerne. With him and his group of artist friends, we participate in the exhibitions they create. The tone of his voice is joyful, his eyes sparkle and his hands animate his sentences. Here we are, the width of the table narrows and we get closer, we begin to enter into what makes his universe.
Universe which is in constant expansion. Every day, every object, every encounter feeds it. It embraces the brand because the style of the products has its origins in what it has seen. The DNA of Urwerk is therefore like the DNA of a human being, it is constantly evolving. That is why, when we ask him to define it, he answers: “We are still discovering it, that is why I do not know it yet”. To want to define it and consequently to freeze it, would be like taking away its life. It would be like setting boundaries to its creative universe and withering its creativity. He is in love with the creative process. His quest is to continually find new concepts, to integrate them into his world so that they see the light of day in one of his creations.
On a trip to Amsterdam, Martin, Felix and his brother leave Switzerland in a 1950s Volvo. Its speedometer is linear and it captivated Martin so much that he suggested to his two companions to use it as inspiration for one of their next creations. Despite some reluctance, sometime later the UR-CC1 was born.
“The concept of modernity is not to grow old. That’s the essence of it. You always have to capture what’s happening now and try to express it in the moment, and each new Urwerk does that a little bit.” And to do that, you have to observe the world.
Observe, look around you. Look for the details, capture the life around you. The world reveals itself to us when we take the time to observe it. Take your eyes off the screen, feel the texture of the objects around you. Can you feel the varnish on the table? The texture of our cooled coffee cup?
The watch does not explain time, it simply tries to illustrate it. This is precisely the mission that Urwerk has set itself: to find new ways to illustrate time. And this mission is one of the elements that allow us to define what an Urwerk is. Handling the cases in front of us, Martin explains that his display can be satellite as well as circular or linear. It doesn’t matter as long as it is different. Next comes the crown. Usually placed at 12 o’clock as in the UR-100 series, it is integrated into the case to preserve its balance.
If it was hidden for a while, the mechanism of the hour display has been revealed little by little. Technology is at the service of beauty. Because yes, technique cannot be a limit.
In the early years of Urwerk, Felix’s brother machined cases on his old Schaublin lathe. But Martin’s creativity led him and Felix to ask for help and thus to handle new machines.
I don’t know about you, but I would say that Martin is not an artist who fits into one creative style. He appreciates above all the creative process and he lets himself be guided by it. What matters is the creative process. It is that freedom that protects the DNA of the brand.
Once a concept is found, shared and discussed, there comes the time when it needs to be given a form so it becomes imaginable. And to do so, Martin draws. When the imagination has been probed and the drawings have been refined, he moves on to 3D. After that, the art leaves its place to the technique.
Time is suspended and the surrounding noise is muffled, I observe him. Listening to him I understood. I understood Martin Frei. By listening to him tell me his story, by observing his imaginary world by immersing myself in his creations and in his eyes, I saw a man who has succeeded in preserving his imagination.
His greatest achievement is to have found a way to immerse us in his creative world by sharing his creations with us.