A Bright Future

A conversation with inventor and solar designer Marjan van Aubel, named Swarovski Designer of the Future

When Marjan van Aubelwas awarded by Swarovski as Designer of the Future in 2017, she was both pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the prospect of visiting the company’s crystal factory in Wattens, Austria. It was there where her curiosity was piqued by the beauty of the opal crystal. Van Aubel is a solar designer — so her interest in opal crystals seemed like an apt starting point to explore the material’s design possibilities and applications.

‘If you hold the crystal like this, it turns blue,’ she explains. ‘And if you turn it and change the light, it becomes orange. I’m fascinated by light and its inner workings, so exploring this material was a new way for me to think about crystals.’

After months of careful research and prototyping, the designer showcased the results of her collaboration with Swarovski at Hong Kong’s Art Central last month. The installation’s main focus is a series of circular lighting features called cyanometers, which highlight the beauty of opal crystals and are powered by the sun.

Visitors were encouraged to lie back on a sofa and gaze upward into the lights, observing a dreamy colourscape that wafted through the space. It's an experience comparable to lying on the grass and staring up at the clouds — with an immersive, intergalactic twist.

What makes van Aubel’s work particularly interesting is the prescient position she has placed herself in. She stands at a peculiar nexus of design, science and sustainability. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the environment the designer grew up in — her father is a chemist and physicist, and her grandparents are both artists.

While most might place the two disciplines at odds with each other, van Aubel sees them as one and the same. Good design and science, in her mind, is about whittling a complicated idea into its simplest, purest, most functional form. It’s a philosophy that is practical and incredibly rational. It’s this same philosophy that makes her passionate about fashioning a future that is not only concerned with appearance, but also with impact and functionality.

Being a designer, according to van Aubel, means carrying a constant consciousness about one's role in shaping the future. 'There are a lot of doom and gloom scenarios like how our natural resources are running out and how fossil fuels are finite. But while these things are happening, what can we do about it? How can we change this?’

'I don’t see the point of making another nice-looking chair if it’s not saying something about where we are going as a society,’ she continues. ‘I see it as a mission to use design as a tool to talk about these issues. We can still change things but a lot of small changes are needed from different angles. Eventually, that will create and foster real progress — that’s the responsibility that I have as a designer of the future.’

Text / Daniel Kong