FASHION: Introducing Olga Noronha
“Jewellery is something that tends to explore locations in one’s body, or is a way of emphasizing and euphemizing extensions of the body”
Olga Noronha, a 23-year-old Portuguese designer, says that from the age of 13, playing with beads and having already created her company’s logo, she knew she wanted to be a jewellery designer. Far from conventional, she is carving out a successful niche for herself; notably for using the influence of medicine in her design process, looking at human anatomy and its response to adornment. She admits she is very lucky that her hobby has become a full-time profession, with some of her designs worn by Rihanna and Premier League players, and upcoming commissions to include Daphne Guinness. She is currently undertaking a PhD at Goldsmiths University in South London.
It was 2007 that saw Noronha embark on a life-changing move to London. The culmination of her search for a highly recognised undergraduate course related to jewellery design saw her begin studies at the much lauded Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design. Critical in her examination of such courses was a conceptual and boundary pushing structure, rather than that of a commercial outlook. The location was also an important factor for her; “London is a true ‘melting pot’, where everything you do is seen and interpreted by people from all over the world, the probabilities of being recognised worldwide are much bigger than if I was a Portugal-based designer.”
It is that desire to be recognised, and bubbling ambition that has ensured Noronha worked relentlessly from day one when she left Portugal at 17. A self-confessed workaholic, – “Sometimes I wish someone could just come and switch off a button in my brain.” – she spent her last two years at CSM working on collaborations with Diane von Furstenberg, Cartier, Links of London and Swarovski. “University projects were always priority of course, but when you want something really bad, then you almost always manage to make time for it.”
The conversation moves to her parents’ reaction, as well as their highly regarded profession of orthopaedics. I asked Noronha how they felt about her entering such an obverse field to theirs, and if she consciously used medical equipment as a muse to bridge the gap between both their worlds: “Up until I was 13 my parents always wanted me to be a surgeon and do what they thought was a guaranteed wealthy future. Even though I decided to follow an artistic career, I have always been in touch with medical and surgical matters. So about 3 years ago I started properly observing the surgical gadgets and techniques and wondering about how to connect such distinctive subjects. In the end, it’s made my father believe and understand that what I do makes sense, and more than anything it makes me very happy. We both work together now in my research.”
Noronha has spoken in the past about giving surgery patients a sense of control over what goes into their body and therefore, control over their body. Such pieces, like the Hip Prosthesis and, her personal favourite, the Filigree Cervical Collar, she says are both conceptual and practical and are intended to be used in medicine and surgery. “All the proposals within these collections are to be properly tested in order to be used in medicine and surgery. Collaborative and interdisciplinary design takes a very important role in my thesis, as well as laboratorial testing, working in conjunction with doctors, bioengineers and biomechanics engineers, because it proves the possibility of my proposals in reaching their final outcome – to be ‘worn’”.
Speaking about her first foray into this, her final year collection entitled Conflict: Rejection/Attraction, which was so successfully received it inspired a revisit and second collection, Noronha elaborates on the concept. Her idea for naming the collection came from the Psychiatric theory of Rejection/Attraction, which assesses the stigma of repulsion of surgical tools, and foreign bodies, that penetrate one’s body. “I turned them into intricate and delicate jewellery pieces that you could feel attracted to, I managed to turn the distasteful into the beautiful. For my final year collection it was very successful in the sense that it provoked extreme reactions.”
Having used medical equipment for inspiration on various occasions Noronha doesn’t believe it can be exhausted as a muse, indicating her approaches and ideas are always unpredictable. The concept has been developed in Noronha’s work at Goldsmith’s, joining bio-engineering and surgical science in order to explore the boundaries of the body and its capacity of being “re-designed”. Her latest collection, ‘Medically Prescribed Jewellery’ featured at this year’s Lisbon Fashion Week in October and has also been on display at the Municipal Gallery in Matosinhos, Portugal.
Discussing the creative process she is gleeful in admitting that she strives to surprise and confuse audiences. “This collection shifts the usual concept of value and luxury towards a debate on medical science and body design. The production of exquisite objects, loaded with sensuality, is cut through with social comment and the relationship between design and science, as well as the problems that arise when aesthetics meets ethics.” Appreciative of Naomi Filmer and Gerd Rothmann, Noronha admires those who establish craft details in a peculiar or individual manner. Her presentation at Fashion Week encouraged audience reaction, with every model anonymously shrouded head-to-toe in white cloth. “Within fashion, the model’s identity tends to be very privileged and my intention of voiding any hint of identity was due to the fact that I was not showcasing the usual concept of beauty.”
While her exploration of the theme became obvious towards the end of her BA in Jewellery Design and onwards, in hindsight, she believes some of her previous work, including ‘Tin Choker’ already showed signs of medical inspiration, though at the time it was not apparent to her. Having invested much of her time in the physicalities of medicine in relation to jewellery, she is not wary of the mammoth task that is mental health, while turning the distasteful into the desirable; “It surely is a theme to be explored sooner or later.”
However, not content to use solely her parent’s field of expertise to draw ideas from, Noronha searches for passive and active interaction to find meaning when designing. She believes a jewel needs to convey more than a simple idea of adornment and needs to be appreciated from an exterior point of view. “In my pieces I like to challenge and explore the relationship of interactivity, between the object, the user and the spectator.”
Noronha clearly believes she owes a lot of her creative freedom and success to CSM and can’t seem to praise it enough. “I am proud of being a Central Satin Martins graduate. It is absolutely incredible what you gain from that university, mainly because of what you learn with its cultural diversity. I would metaphorically see Central Saint Martins as “four walls where the whole artistic world is kept”. And the University also holds Noronha in high esteem. Earlier this year she was invited back as a guest lecturer and Undergraduate Lab Assistant in the 3D department of the Foundation Course in Art and Design. A personal career highlight was having her work displayed at a CSM exhibition for the University’s 21st birthday, which was to highlight the quality of work that CSM has nurtured. “I felt completely flattered when the Dean of the College asked for my permission to acquire my work and it now belongs to the CSM Museums’ private collection.” Furthermore she has been distinguished by Goldsmiths College where some of her recent work is also part of their museum’s private collection.
Noronha does not always work alone however. Bolstering her “workaholic” claims, she displayed twice at this year’s Lisbon Fashion Week, in a collaboration that saw her ethnic wooden and golden chain accessories feature in an Elisabeth Teixeira show. She was approached by Teixeira and the pair met in March to collaborate, developing a collection called ‘Dévoiler’. “I asked her for a moodboard and from that I developed a range of accessories with total freedom.” Other collaborations include Catarina Sequeira and, unusually, London-based menswear designer Nicomede Talavera. “I like designing menswear accessories but I tend to focus more on women’s bodies since it allows more creativity on the adornment aspect,” she says, describing the partnership as enjoyable.
Looking to the future, with not only a PhD to complete, but also numerous plans and opportunities lined up, Noronha is in no way about to slow down. The New Year will take her to Brazil where she will exhibit at “Fashion before Fashion” in Rio de Janeiro. The exhibition is being organized by the Museum of Abrantes, where pre-Roman objects will be displayed alongside contemporary fashion and jewellery. Furthermore, she has just been invited to join Lisbon Fashion Week again in March and is currently planning and developing some large scale pieces for upcoming fashion editorials.
By Clarissa Waldron