Visnja Brdar: My love affair with New York began the first time I visited The Big Apple when I was 28



Visnja Brdar is without a doubt a global Australian; having lived and worked in Melbourne, Paris, London, Milan and Rome. Moving to New York in 1999 after being invited by internationally renowned art director Fabien Baron, Visnja found her footing in the Big Apple as a Creative Director and Graphic Designer. Her determination, talent and fierce aesthetic vision led her to collaborate with the industry’s leading influencers.

After working with clients who were big names in the jewellery industry, the idea of creating her own pieces hit her like a “lightning bolt” in Paris. Visnja began to design pieces that were aesthetically modern and light, in contrast to the heavy-set designs of the storied old jewellery brands. But more importantly, she created jewels that were intellectual and spiritual, to have a purpose beyond pure decoration.

Visnja recently spoke to Advance about how her professional journey ultimately led her to New York, and the sheer grit it took to get there.

Interview by Molly O'Brien

How did moving to New York elevate your career to new heights? How did you come to the decision to move there and not somewhere else?

Prior to moving to New York, I was living in Melbourne. I had my own Creative Agency - BRDAR - for five years. Some of Australia’s top brands were my clients, including the Sydney Opera House, Scanlan Theodore, Chris Connell Design, Leigh Prentice Architecture, food writer Jill Dupleix and Est Est Est restaurant among others.

The answer was to operate on a global level and work with international brands. So I sent my portfolio from St Kilda to New York; straight to Baron & Baron, the best Creative Agency in the world working in the luxury market. I got a call a few weeks later saying that the owner, Fabien Baron, whom I admired more than anyone, thought my work was ‘beautiful’. That was enough for me to close my office, say goodbye to my clients, let go of my apartment and show up at Baron & Baron. They were very surprised to see me. But I got a job within minutes of meeting my guru! I was a Senior Art Director and my first project was with Michael Kors, who didn’t have a logo yet, or packaging, or advertising campaigns, or even a store. It was such an exhilarating and formative period for me, helping build that brand. My dream of working with global brands became reality. Other amazing projects to follow were for Jil Sander, Nars Cosmetics, Calvin Klein, Guerlain, Donna Karan amongst many others… I had arrived!

Did you fall in love with New York as soon as you relocated?

My love affair with New York began the first time I visited The Big Apple when I was 28, which was a few months before I relocated. I knew in my bones that I would be back and that New York would be my next chapter in life. I felt extremely welcomed and embraced for my talents. Everyone loved my ‘can-do’ attitude.

Your job requires constant innovation. What inspires you?

My job is highly visual and aesthetic. I look to the world around me for inspiration: art; fashion; architecture; as well as to enlightened people who have character, personality and clarity of purpose. I have a vast library that is close at hand, full of beauty – from typography, to photography, jewellery and biographies. I have an appetite for uniqueness and ideas that are outside the box. This appeals to my somewhat rebellious nature that is always seeking to do what others are not. That being said, there is a simplicity and purity that is modern and powerful, that underpins a lot of my work.

Does your Australian background inform any of your work?

Whether I am designing in the second or third dimension, I love using a lot of space.  Perhaps that is due to the spacious nature of Australia’s vast, open, big skies. Also, the oceans have a scale that is grand and majestic, they too are an influence. My aesthetic language is always clear and direct and therefore I think it has a lot of impact. Perhaps that has to do with my personality, which is quite Australian in its directness... or in other words, “bullshit-free”. I shouldn’t ignore my Croatian heritage, as that’s where I think I get my passionate spirit.

Reflecting back on my time in Australia, I think Australians, in general, have a high sense of design and refined taste level. With my first paycheck in Melbourne I bought an Eero Saarinen Tulip marble dining table from Dedece, the modern furniture mecca in Sydney, because so many cool people around me had them. Most Aussies implicitly understand good modern design. Twenty-eight years later, that table is now my desk in New York.

How do you think growing up and attending university in Australia has contributed to your successes?

I had a rigorous four-year university education in Visual Communication at Swinburne University, based on the Swiss education system. From 2,000 applicants, 20 were accepted. It was tough and very exacting. We were pushed hard to produce excellence. Being motivated like that as well as being innately driven helped me produce work of a high calibre. Needless to say, receiving “Student Of The Year Award” twice was an enormous confidence booster. My university work was good enough to get me my first serious projects out of school. Those first projects were great enough to get me my projects in Paris (for Marc Newson) and Rome (for Colors Magazine) when I was 21-24 years old. Ultimately it was my cumulative and consistently strong 8-year body of work that got me accepted at Baron & Baron in New York.

Do you have any advice for young creatives who may be looking to branch out and do their own thing?

You must have stamina and willpower. You need drive and tenacity. Be driven by some purpose. In my case, my purpose and desire was to produce world-class work of great sophistication, elevated aesthetics and intelligence. Things don’t typically fall into your lap, so have the courage to be proactive and make things happen. Whether it is finding an office space, clients or staff, don’t let fear get in the way. Fear will rear its ugly head every day. Work through the fear, and keep at it.  As the old saying goes – Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration (I would add determination)! Never lose faith.

Finally, don’t settle for second best – ever – in anything. Let me give you an example. I was working on creating the advertising campaign for the fashion brand Bill Blass. The client gave us a budget for the photoshoot. I convinced them to spend 10 times the amount to use the iconic and brilliant photographer Richard Avedon. And I had to convince Richard Avedon to do the project. On top of that, I had to convince my boss at the time too. Willpower! Purpose!

How can jewellery be more than just decorative accessories? What does it mean to you?

After having worked on branding projects with high jewellery houses like Van Cleef & Arpels and Harry Winston, I realised that ‘old-school’ jewellery held no appeal to me. That revelation hit me like a lightning bolt on Place Vendôme in Paris and got me seriously thinking about what I would wear, since I was not a jewellery wearer. I started to design pieces that were aesthetically modern and light in contrast to the heavy-set designs of the storied old jewellery brands. But more importantly, I wanted my jewels to be intellectual and spiritual – to have a purpose beyond pure decoration.

Essentially, I created VISNJA JEWELS for my own fortification. My first collection was called COURAGE, which I felt I needed every day in life. I certainly needed courage to start a fine jewellery brand in New York City, without any formal training, using the best materials and the highest level of craftsmanship. The FREEDOM collection was a reminder to myself to fly every day and not be shackled by the daily pressures, the speed and the stress of New York. I created the LOVE collection when I was yearning for love and after prolonged periods couldn’t find it. One doesn’t find one. Love finds you! So the LOVE collection helped me keep my heart open. The POWER collection was created to empower myself when wearing my businesswoman hat, especially when working on big corporate projects and often having to present to (and convince) twenty people in a room.

VISNJA JEWELS has become a reflection of my life and a meditation on my journey. The jewels have become not only a source of fortification for me, but the jewels of liberation. They are a gift to myself and to all women seeking empowerment, inspiration and chicness. The themes and values that I work with are eternal and relevant more than ever. Ten years ago we launched the brand at Bergdorf Goodman and now they can be purchased from our atelier in a charming townhouse on the Upper East Side.

What’s your definition of 'making it'?

To me ‘making it’ means working with incredible clients in New York at BRDAR, creating high calibre work and having them love it. Creating gorgeous designs for VISNJA JEWELS that women around the world desire and covet. Creating work that is unique and different. The rebel in me doesn’t like the obvious or the common. ‘Making it’ is also being recognised. When at a Tiffany party, the legendary Elsa Peretti crossed the room and held close my POWER pendant with the most wonderful compliments. I was on cloud nine.

Obviously, the financial rewards figure in my definition, but just as important is the idea of being calm, clear and peaceful. Being peaceful in the madness and not allowing stress to creep up on you and devour you. ‘Making it’ is making family more important than anything. Balance is key. Not getting caught up in it all.

Why do you think Australians do so well in a city like New York? I think people love the Australian accent! I always get that reaction once I open my mouth, it’s charming and exotic. First impressions matter! I think we have a demeanour that is easy going, however most Aussies I meet here are somewhat ‘gung-ho’. You have to be, you're living in New York! I think our straightforwardness is a huge asset, as well as our ‘can-do’ attitude. I personally enjoy moving mountains and love challenges and I think most Aussies in NY have some of that spirit in them.

Are there any aspects of living in the United States that you struggle with?

I grew up in Geelong near the ocean and in my adult life I lived in St. Kilda where I would walk on the beach every day before walking to my office, and stop to enjoy a latte on the way, of course. Sometimes working in a concrete jungle like New York unnerves me, so we escape to Shelter Island on weekends. But there is nothing like living in Melbourne where the ocean is part of your everyday life. I miss that connection to nature. My office is a block away from Central Park, so I try to walk home via Fifth Avenue with the mansions on one side and the green views on the other side. I take in the chlorophyll, the intoxicating scent of linden and the majesty of the scenery. That’s my fix of beauty – which for me is a vital necessity.