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Business and creativity: interview with Dr Friedrich Wille

By Howard Jarvis. 31.07.2010

Dr Friedrich Wille, CEO, Frey Wille
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RigaNOW! made an exclusive interview with Dr Friedrich Wille, CEO of the remarkably successful Austrian company Frey Wille.

Frey Wille is a remarkable company. An unwavering and unique design concept in creating artistic jewelry out of precious enamel since the 1950s has given it a special place on the upmarket shopping street. The petite yet kaleidoscopic Frey Wille shop in Riga is now a year old, so to mark its birthday we decided to track down CEO Dr Friedrich Wille for a personal interview.


Dr Friedrich Wille: a brief biography
Born in Austria in 1940 into what he describes as being a “very humanistic household” where an intense consideration and respect for other cultures were a daily occurrence.
In 1960, after finishing law school, Dr Wille became the financial auditor of an ornamental enamel company founded by Michaela Frey.
In 1980, he became art director in addition to his financial role in the company. After that, a new spirit flowed through the artistic team under the direction of his wife, Creative Director Simone Grünberger. The idea of “jewelry as decorative art” was invented, built from 24 carat gold and based on an innovative design philosophy with a focus on modern forms.
Becoming the CEO of the company in 1983, Dr Wille continues to be keenly involved in the selection of new collections, motifs and products. The number of Frey Wille stores worldwide now numbers 73, with new stores to open in 2010 in Vancouver, Sydney, Kiev and on Madison Avenue, New York.
Jewelry photos show the collection Ode to the Joy of Life (courtesy Frey Wille)


RN: You began your career as a financial auditor, yet 20 years later you became art director as well. How have you managed to balance these two very different roles?
DFW: My humanistic education – ancient Greek, Latin, Art, History – was responsible for my interest in art and creativity. There is nothing more rewarding than working with artists to create new ideas, especially together with my wife, who has for many years been the company’s artistic brain.
As a child, I was lucky enough to travel with my parents to many cities around the world, visiting art galleries and discovering other cultures. My love of the art, culture and history of other countries comes from these experiences.
In order to understand the business and economy of a certain country, it’s important to know its history and culture. The Frey Wille design team is very international, with employees hailing from Turkey, Croatia, Hungary, Japan and Germany as well as Austria. The company is like a big family and I am in daily contact with almost everyone.
Even when I initially joined the company I was always close to the artistic work going on there and offered creative ideas, which the team often took on board. When Simone Grünberger, my wife, took over as creative director, my input and enthusiasm only intensified. I am still personally very involved in creative decisions.
It’s essential for me to remain true to my line and creative vision, yet at the same time I want to be able to give our creative team of artists, goldsmiths and experts of fine enameling plenty of opportunity to work independently and, finally, to bring joy and excitement to the people who buy our products.

RN: Frey Wille has in the past created collections in homage to Austrian artists such as Klimt and Hundertwasser. As an Austrian company, do you feel compelled to promote the works of Austrian artists in particular?
DFW: Yes, for sure. But they are especially outstanding for our artistic style – full of decorative elements or fascinating color contrasts.
Claude Monet was our first homage to a famous, talented and richly joyful artist, so we are not concentrating only on Austrian artists. On the other hand we feel we are in a uniquely close position to work together with the estates of artists who were from Austria or its surrounding countries. In the case of Alphonse Mucha, a Czech artist, we feel we know the whole family very well.
We see the homage to artists as a win-win situation. Everybody knows Klimt, of course, but few people have heard of Hundertwasser or Mucha outside Austria, the Czech Republic or France. To have the opportunity to make their names better-known around the world is extraordinary and wonderful.

RN: What is it about the details of Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer that inspired you and your designers to create jewelry out of them?
DFW: The portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer was mystically enriched with decorative elements which capture the eyes of its admirers.

RN: As you say, Klimt and Hundertwasser are two of Austria’s most colorful and jubilant artists. Would you ever consider producing a collection based on the works of, say, Egon Schiele, which arguably contain their own unique artistic beauty?
DFW: Egon Schiele is a permanent wish from me, because I adore his works. We are working on how we can find a connection between his outstanding work and decorative art.
It is also important to bear in mind that it’s not possible to represent every artist’s creativity in enamel designs. Enamel is a very special material and, even if an artist’s estate is willing to consider having jewelry created from details in his works, we have to be very careful with what we show.

RN: What made you decide to create the 18 Carat collection last year? Did you feel that a more precious alternative to the enamel jewelry was needed, especially as the price of gold was rising as other financial markets tumbled?
DFW: Gold has always been of special importance in the history of mankind for creating jewelry. This is for many people an automatic association with value in jewelry – quite mystical also. We wanted to create our artistic designs also for gold.

RN: Was the Princess Collection, with its playful images of clowns and butterflies, your first attempt to produce jewelry for little ones? Has it been a success?
DFW: Twenty-five years ago we had a wonderful collection for children. People remember it very well. Today, the approach for children’s jewelry has changed considerably and we are working to find the right answer.

RN: The Frey Wille store in Riga opened in 2009 – in the middle of a debilitating recession in which consumers drastically slashed household spending. How successful has this particular store been compared to the rest of your network?
DFW: The first year was tough. We suffered too, like all Latvians. But we didn’t wait for better days. We worked hard and are developing an important network. Now we are harvesting the results, and we’re still very busy in continuing this work.

RN: Are you planning to open more stores in the Baltic region or elsewhere in Central & Eastern Europe?
DFW: Yes, in the other Baltic states, but also more stores in Ukraine, Russia, Croatia and Bulgaria. This year, we are opening a new store on Madison Avenue, New York, which is very exciting for us. This will be our first in New York and second in the USA after Santa Monica. Other Frey Wille stores opening in 2010 are Vancouver, Sydney and Kiev. We have 73 shops open in total at the moment.

RN: The color and light of the Riga store is striking as you walk in. But doesn’t the limited area of the shop seriously restrict the collections you can display?
DFW: The philosophy is in the regular changes of the important collections. Not all of the collections are always on display, in any of our stores. One of our most successful shops, the one in Dubai, is 30 sq m.
What you see in the shop in Riga is exactly what you’ll see in our shop in Madrid, for example. The choice of which collections are on display at any one time is very carefully thought out.

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