Meet Uli Rapp: ‘The human body never ceases to inspire me.’
Uli Rapp has been making her high-tech, gorgeous designs for almost two decades now. It was about time for a chat! In her cosy studio facing the famous Amsterdam canals, she spills the tea on her design process, her fascination for 16th century jewelry and her colorful clients – who she very much adores.
First of all, how do you see your designs? Is it jewelry? Is it art?
‘I call them ‘body extensions’. Thanks to the soft, flexible material, the pieces have a particular kind of dynamic quality to them. They adapt to your body movements unlike ‘hard’ metal jewelry, which is static. So I think my work fits somewhere between fashion and art.’
Let’s go back to beginning. Did you always know you wanted to be a jewelry designer?
‘I enrolled into art school with the intention to learn more about screen printing. At that time, I was also designing furniture and lamps. At a certain point I started experimenting with creating smaller objects, which very organically morphed into necklaces. Unlike furniture, I feel that with jewelry, I have a greater control over the final product. This is important to me: here in Amsterdam I work with a small team of 6 people who assist me with production. I’ve always designed all the collections myself and will continue to do so. I just enjoy my work so very much!’
Was it difficult to find the right material for your jewelry?
‘It was quite a journey. But a fun one! When I still lived in Germany, I owned a plastic production company with my sister for a short while. That’s how I learned about medical plastic which is used as the outside layer of protheses. And sometimes you can find it on the inside of helmets. I immediately loved to soft, bouncy feel of it. At the same time it’s sturdy. It made sense to me to use this material for the jewelry I wanted to make: an extension of the body. I experimented with temperature and pressure to create the right texture and combined the material with textile. It’s perfect the way it is now. I feel that my jewelry is like a second skin covering the body of the person wearing it.’
My pieces are real conversation starters. When I’m invited to a dinner party and wear one of my necklaces, I know beforehand that people will ask questions about it.
Boy George, Madonna, Cher: they have all been spotted wearing your designs. Do you wear your pieces yourself?
‘It depends on my mood and if I want to draw attention. My pieces are real conversation starters. When I’m invited to a dinner party and wear one of my necklaces, I know beforehand that people will ask questions about it. If I’m feeling a bit introverted that day, I will probably not wear any of my own jewelry. But if I feel outgoing, then a necklace will push me even more out of my comfort zone and place me in the center of attention. You can really play with your identity that way.’
Your jewelry looks extremely modern, but it is rooted in history.
‘Yes, during my studies I developed an interest in 16th century jewelry and lace. The royals back then would spend hours and hours dressing up to create a very particular image of themselves. With their jewels and fancy fabrics they would command respect and have a political influence. Nowadays rappers use the same ‘exaggeration’: they wear large watches and heavy gold necklaces. This need of people to abundantly decorate themselves fascinates me and lies at the basis of my jewelry.’
You launch two new collections every year. How do you continue to come up with new shapes and colors?
‘It’s maybe a bit odd to say this, but I’m often inspired by my own past designs. So when I start designing a new collection, I always go through previous collections. Then I ask myself: what can I improve this season? Which color combinations are interesting to me? Can I add new lengths to the bunch? Also, the human body never fails to inspire me. How can I design a piece of jewelry that brings out this body part and conceals another? This is an ongoing challenge for me.’
People all over the world wear your jewelry. Doesn’t this amaze you?
‘It really does. Japan, Korea, Kuwait, Europe, the Americas… my clients are everywhere. It’s extremely interesting to see how differently people relate to my designs depending on their culture. In Europe people’s way of dressing is minimalistic compared to the US. So here people would rather hang my jewelry on their walls at home. In New York people are much more outspoken: the more, the better. Drag queens wear my jewelry as well as famous bloggers. In Porto Rico people wear my pieces to the beach. I’m lucky to have a pretty big fan base there. People tell me ‘they got hooked’ on my jewelry whenever I’m there and want to take pictures with me. This, I’m still not used to.’
You sometimes design pieces on request. What’s the most surprising request you ever got?
‘I once designed several necklaces for someone’s chihuahua. Then there was this client who got eye surgery and needed and eye shield. She didn’t want a boring black eye shield, so she came to me. I almost always say ‘yes’ to requests, I might be surprised and learn something new along the way.’