Last time we talked to Karen von Pederstad, the woman behind upcycling jewelry brand Retusj, she was working out of a ‘shoe box’ overlooking the Eiffel tower. At that point her five-year plan involved getting her own studio where she could continue to develop and live off her work as a designer. Four years after our last interview, we meet von Pederstad in her bright, top floor studio in the center of Oslo, surrounded by shelves and drawers filled to the brim with materials.
Retusj has been a staple at SemiDomesticated since our beginning, and Karen’s innovative way of mixing materials ranging from zip tie strips and rubber bands, to vintage beads, chains, semi precious stones and other market finds, into impressive jewelry collections, continue to blow our socks off. We’re interested in hearing more about what she’s been up to these last four years.
As long as I’ve come up with something that I really like, and that is working, I see no reason to change it, only make it better.
Apart from the obvious, you have left Paris and moved back to Oslo, what has changed and what has remained more or less the same?
It is, and has been, a slow development from one thing to the next, where everything I do is connected. Because I don’t produce seasonal collections, there are no drastic changes, and rather a continuation, where I keep the best ideas and materials, add some new ones and drop those who don’t work. It becomes a slow refinement process; one long collection.
Yes, we see a definite development and refinement in your work, but with a clear red thread going through. Your concepts are well developed and worth sticking to, so why fix something that is working?
Yes, as long as I’ve come up with something that I really like, and that is working, I see no reason to change it, only make it better. And it’s still relevant.
Retusj is known for taking rather lackluster materials like rubber bands and plastic zip ties and turning and transforming them into impressive creations worthy of any black tie event. What are some new materials you have introduced?
I have a whole stock of materials behind me (pointing at a large shelving unit behind her) that is just waiting to be taken into use. I’m always a few steps behind myself… the production can’t keep up with my ideas. I’ve gathered so many great materials that have been lying there for years, waiting to be developed.
The zip ties have stayed with me for a long time, but recently I started dying them myself. It took a while to experiment with how and what to dye them with. But now I’ve found a method that works, and a colorful strips collection is currently being developed. I’ve done the black strips for a while now, so once I’ve experimented with color, I might lay the strips to rest for good. We’ll see.
As a next step I plan to get into metal smithing and make my own metal pieces to integrate in the jewelry. To go all the way with the jewelry.
The great thing about this space is that it’s a real workspace where I can get down and dirty! I can sit and spray-paint on the floor and do whatever I want, and that liberates me. (…) It’s very inspiring to be able to experiment and follow my impulses.
Last time you talk about how limited space to work in was one of the reason why you landed in the jewelry making field. Now that you have more space, has this changed your process or opened up for any new opportunities?
The great thing about this space is that it’s a real workspace where I can get down and dirty! I can sit and spray paint on the floor and do whatever I want, and that liberates me. If I have an idea, I have the freedom to try it out. It’s very inspiring to be able to experiment and follow my impulses.
The people I share the studio with are mostly in theatre business, as scenographers and costume designers. We don’t collaborate much, but it’s important to be in an environment where things are happening. There’s always plenty of materials and textile to be inspired by.
Speaking of textile, you also told us that part of your five-year plan involved getting (back) into clothing design as well.
I have made some costumes, but my own clothing line is still to come. I keep it at the back of my head, but it’s such a different process, that it has remained there thus far.
Retusj, was a necessary side route on a path I’m still exploring. I’m looking at how to integrate textile as part of the jewelry as well.
Your path has taken you to Paris, via Berlin and now back to Norway. What prompted your move back to the homeland?
I had a need to go ‘home’, and I realised that if I stayed longer, I would just stay… I always knew that I would return at some point, and when a window of opportunity presented itself, I went for it. I wasn’t ready to be 100% French, and there was something I missed about ‘home’.
I have a whole stock of materials behind me, just waiting to be taken into use. I’m always a few steps behind myself… the production can’t keep up with my ideas.
So your transition was more of a homecoming than a business move?
Ha, definitely. It mostly had to do with language and identity. It’s a lot easier to take care of business in the culture and language that I grew up with, rather than to stammer my way through the rail of French pleasantries that I never fully got a grip of… But I had fallen deeply for Paris and the heartbreak of leaving is still mending. When it came to materials, I miss how accessible they are there, and how just walking the streets of Paris is so inspiring.
So, no, this definitely wasn’t a creative or business move. The fashion industry in Oslo is quite small and challenging.
What is challenging about it?
The scene is so small here, so what gets the most attention is the tabloids and mainstream media… All though flattering, being featured on a tabloid celebrity page as the highest form of recognition is not what I aspire to. But there’s also a different up-and-coming, underground design scene here as well, which is something I’m excited about.
Well, as opposed to Paris, fashion is pretty far from the first that comes to mind when you think of Oslo.
No, definitely not, but things are moving under the surface. This has been talked about for a while. When I lived in Paris, people were curious about Norway, because the other Scandinavian counties had had their ‘breakthroughs’ into the fashion world. It didn’t happen yet, but I see it happening now, with a boom of innovative initiatives and talented creatives working outside of the commercial mainstream — Away from the pompous and glamorous, which is not representative of Norwegian design.
I’m realising more and more how much I love the craftsmanship and production side of things. I feel more connected to the crafts and applied arts world than to the fashion world.
(…) the queen of Norway, Sonja! I think she’d look fantastic in Retusj!
How has Retusj been received back in Norway?
A majority of my sales happen through word of mouth and via friends of friends and I have a faithful, and growing, group of regular customers. Business and PR-wise there are many things I probably should be doing. In some respects I’m sure I’m doing the opposite of what I should do. I never call the newspapers or attend fashion fares, but I have gotten a lot of great feedback from boutiques and shops that are carrying my work and keep making new connections.
You mentioned tabloids, and we’ve noticed that you have received some some high scores on reviews of various Norwegian celebrities sporting your ‘bling’ on the red carpet.
This is definitely a very nice form of attention, but in these cases, the people wearing a piece of Retusj have all come to me as regular paying customers, so when they choose to show them off, it’s a real compliment!
I have a strict policy with freebies, because so much work goes into making each piece by hand. Sending out a hundred freebies and hoping that a few will be worn and talked about in public, isn’t sustainable. I also don’t support this attitude in the industry, that just because you have a public profile, you should get everything for free.
I offered one celebrity customer a discount because she was promoting me quite a bit, but she declined and insisted on paying full price. I ended up giving her a 2% discount just a symbolic thank you. It’s a lot cooler when someone with a well known name chooses to support you as an artist, and wear your work on their own accord.
If you could choose one Norwegian celebrity to wear a piece of Retusj, who would it be?
That would have to be the queen of Norway, Sonja! I think she’d look fantastic in a Retusj!
So you’d send her a free necklace?
Ha, that would be something. All though I’ve heard that clearing a package to the royal castle is a very difficult process. But she would be my top choice.
Well, the queen is known for her appreciation for the arts, so perhaps she will come across your jewelry at one of the contemporary museum shops you’ve been picked up by. How does Retusj fit into high profiled institutions such as the Astrup Fernley Museum and Henie Onstad Kunstsenter?
I think that they fit better, or at least just as well there as in the fashion world. My work often resides in a grey area — I’m neither here nor there, but I’m definitely outside of the traditional, cyclical fashion world.
Artisanal handicraft has had a reputation to be a bit stout and old-timey, but that is changing along with an appreciation for quality and custom tailoring in fashion.
This is becoming a way of thinking, and strong trend that is very positive. There is no reason why things should change up to four times a year. This development is over encompassing and spreads out to what and how we eat, and what we consume. We have seen this coming for a long time.
So despite your ideas moving faster than your ability to produce, you’re not considering outsourcing your production?
No, that would not only go against the fundamental ideas behind Retusj, and I’m realising more and more how much I love the craftsmanship and production side of things. I feel more connected to the crafts and applied arts world than to the fashion world.
I would be open to having help or an apprentice working under me though.
To end where we started. Last time we asked where you wanted to be in five years. Four years later, do you have anything to add to that list?
It’s a lot of the same. I still want to keep doing this, and keep developing the brand, by learning new techniques. I’m excited about learning blacksmithing and go all the way with jewelry to open up a new venue.
I would love to have my own flagship store. A place to sell Retusj, but also a place where I can combine all of my passions, where, if I feel like doing flower binding on a Friday, I could. It would be a space to collaborate and exhibit with others. I’m also a huge collector, so it would be great to have that as my own universe where I could spread out and exhibit my collections.
With that we say thank you and head back to the crisp and sunny autumn day outside. We’re already looking forward to our next visit!