A Watchword for CreativityNovember 15, 2013
HOW MIKA’S DESIGN TOOK SHAPE
The design of Mika’s own “nice things” for Swatch feature a striking pattern on the strap (unusually, stamped on both sides) that has been abstracted from North African textiles, with an image suggesting a traditional tribal mask on the watch face. His primitivist theme is echoed by the inclusion of a mask in the presentation box for the limited-edition watch, and for the other watch, by an imaginary jungle paradise pictured on a special sleeve. Mika worked on the designs almost solidly for a year with his sister, Yasmine Penniman — an independent artist and illustrator also known as DaWack — who’s helped Mika shape his boldly contemporary universe, collaborating closely on his album sleeves, videos and live shows. It’s a world that has welcomed in visionaries such as celebrated set designer Es Devlin, album sleeve artists Stephanie Nash and Anthony Michael, and costume designers from the Beijing Opera House, among many others. “I don’t come from a design background,” Mika explains, “which is why I have so much fun designing stuff and why I love collaborating with people. We’re always looking for people we can call on to help us bring all these ideas to life.” This idea of giving concepts an energy — whether the end product is an album, a softdrink bottle, a stage costume or a watch — is key for Mika, who always uses the same creative process. At the start, he finds a compelling story.
“If that narrative is strong enough,” he reasons, “then when you continue it through the design process, it all ties together.” For the Swatch project, Mika and Yasmine developed the idea of the wristwatch as a totem pole. They imagined it manifesting on an alien planet whose inhabitants are first puzzled by it and then terrified of it, but finally worship it. When it fails to give them what they want, they chop it down and their life carries on as before. The only remaining relic of the totem pole is the watch itself. “It doesn’t really make sense,” Mika laughs. “It’s kind of pointless and dark, in some way, but it’s as naive as it is dark. And no one really cares about the story except me, and my sister. I wanted something that felt really considered and total, and knowing that story helped us with the design. The patterns are a mix of the designs you find in Morocco and Tunisia, and the tribal mask heads are a mix of sources — you can’t quite pinpoint what they might be. But it doesn’t really matter, because they have the same function — they’re there to inspire curiosity and awe. That was one of the main parts of our idea. We wanted the object to feel a little bit mystical, and the tribal mask is the ultimate way of achieving that.”
EXPANDING ON AN AFRICAN THEME
With his usual enthusiasm, Mika decided to extend the idea of his watch as a mystical object by working closely with London-based American sculptor Aaron Distler to create three masks to be used at its launch, to frame and present the watch in a way that intensifies its totemic quality and builds on the narrative of Mika’s imagination. “For that reason,” he explains, “it’s not just another watch made of just another bit of plastic. These display masks are not just boxes that you open up, they’re objects to intrigue.” For him — as for so many performers — the symbolism of the mask is both obvious and very meaningful. “It’s a brilliant protective tool ; life’s a lot easier when you hide behind a mask. As long as you make it yourself !”
Despite the fact that neither he nor his sister had a formal education in product design, Mika didn’t find the process at all daunting. In fact, he enjoyed the challenge and tackled it with the same hands-on passion and attention to detail that characterises all his work. “It was fun,” he says, “because for me, the process is exactly the same as making music. I don’t see any difference between the two. I think building a world and then developing it while remaining faithful to it, but without just repeating yourself again and again is really important. It’s that combination of knowing where you came from and sticking to your language, but also expanding your vocabulary. I have to make something that is part of my universe. The same is true when I’m writing my songs ; I know what my limits are and how far I can push them while still being recognisably true to myself. Yasmine and I don’t really know how we do it, but your limitations become your trademark. You can use them to create something that is instantly recognisable.”