The newly-appointed executive creative director of Tiffany & Co. gets personal about art and design.
Interview by Martin Lerma
Ruba Abu-Nimah considers herself the opposite of opulent. It’s an unusual assessment coming from the executive creative director of American jeweler Tiffany & Co., but Abu-Nimah has always bucked the traditional line of thinking. She spoke with Platform about what drives her love for Manet, how she first discovered the power of design through her mom’s juicer and why success is best described as “deliciousness.”
Your career's been written about extensively, but how would you describe what you do?
I'm a graphic designer. I think that it's very nice to have a big title, and it's very nice to be recognized for a 30-plus year career, but when I was a kid, I was obsessed with two things: becoming a graphic designer and art. I still say, "When I grow up, I want to be an art collector." And I am very envious of people who collect art, on a bigger scale than I do, of course. But I am a graphic designer, and I'm very, very obsessive with that craft. And I do think it's a craft. Graphic design is a very specific discipline. It is all around us. I love the idea of communicating through the visual, through media, typography, photography, illustration. A typeface, for example, can be so unbelievably illustrative and emotional, and picking that right typeface for what you're trying to say, I think is a real craft.
You mentioned a very early interest in art and collecting art. Where do you think that stems from?
I don't really know. I just don't ever remember any part of my life where I didn't have this deep obsession for art. And art, not just the applied arts, or what we traditionally consider art, but art as in industrial design or anything else visual. I was intrigued with the kitchen appliances in our kitchen growing up. I couldn't figure out why, but I loved using some of them. Many years later, I realized that those appliances were designed by Dieter Rams. I didn't know who Dieter Rams was when I discovered them in the kitchen, but for some reason, they spoke to me. I had a real emotional connection to the juicer and the coffee grinder. Fast forward a few decades and those objects were the precursors of Apple products we're so attached to today. Jony Ive was very influenced by the work of Dieter Rams, and we all have deep emotional connections to our electronics today.
When you embark on a new project, do each of the brands you work with require a different approach or mindset? Or do you think those things fundamentally stay the same?
I think the foundation is always the same. The foundation is always: How do you communicate? How do you tell a story? How do you make things as desirable as possible? As beautiful as possible? I have a specific taste and style in that I'm a reductionist, a minimalist. I'm the opposite of opulent. How can I reduce the message to its most reductionist form? How I create desire, tell a story and sell product in equal measure is the challenge across all brands. And how to keep it tasteful above all else? My job is to bring all these ingredients together and make it work.
I read in one interview you said that art, fashion and commerce are all connected. How do you successfully connect those things in a project?
Good taste. Which is a very controversial thing to say because, how do you define it? I think there are levels of taste in different factions. I have to fulfill a brief, right? And so I think success is when I'm able to do it as tastefully as possible, as quietly as possible, but as clearly as possible. Am I able to speak to the person who I'm trying to communicate with? The biggest success would be: Can I get everybody to desire it, or to find a place in it? It's a sum of parts, of ideas, of storytelling, of good taste, of good visuals, of appealing language and, finally, of disruption. Disruption and surprise are the hardest things to achieve while staying on brand, but that is the ultimate goal. You bring all these ingredients together, you cook them and then it's something delicious. I think success is deliciousness.
You yourself are obviously very design-oriented. Do you have an approach to the objects that you surround yourself with? What draws you to some things versus others?
I have to have an emotional connection to it, or I have to have a historic connection. I used to be a big flea market person. I lived in Paris for a decade. I lived in Italy for some years. Those are places that are historic and storied, and you can find beautiful things. I also come from the Middle East, which is also very old. I love things that resonate specifically with my story. I bought an IBM typewriter ribbon in its original box at a flea market because the packaging was designed by Paul Rand. And I have no use for typewriter ribbon whatsoever, and will never have use for typewriter ribbon. But that box and that package and that graphic, that's the history of graphic design right there. I'm also a huge book collector.
I think books are art objects unto themselves. I don't think books are considered art in the same way as a painting on a wall in a gallery is considered art. But if you look at Robert Frank's The Americans, the original edition of that book is a piece of art. That is a social commentary. That is photography. That is so many things in one small publication. That is a world-changing piece of art. And it’s a book. Richard Avedon's In The American West, I would consider the same. Irving Penn's Passage, I would consider the same. Also, the people behind the making of those books. Alexey Brodovitch and Marvin Israel, those are the groundbreakers. Those are my heroes. I don't think I've ever managed to create anything on that level. A lot of the way that I sequence my images on Instagram you can correlate directly to the work of Alexey Brodovitch.
What draws you to certain works of art? And what do you think makes a work of art "good"?
Oh my God. You're asking me to define art, right? In this interview, I was asked to define art and good taste, the two hardest things in the world. I think you have to have an emotional connection to it. You either feel it or you don't, like music, which is also an art. I think everybody has really specific things they are attracted to. I think whether that's a human being or a piece of art or a pair of shoes, it's emotional, it's innate. Does it have something to do with our DNA? Is it nurture? Nature? Perhaps this is too existential a question for me to tackle.
It's going to sound so stereotypical, but my first obsession was Andy Warhol, which remains to this day. When I discovered his work, it changed my life. Here was somebody who broke all the rules and he was street and he was underground and he was commercial and he was fine arts and he was weird and he was everything all in one. And he was New York. It was a confederation of stuff that worked. I was living in Brussels, and I remember purchasing with babysitting money the Brillo poster that he did, the silk screen for the Pasadena Art Museum, which you can still find for a couple of thousand dollars today. But that was my first-ever art purchase, I think.
I was also learning about art through going to auctions with my dad, but I will never forget my first visit to the MoMA. We were living in Europe and my father had a business trip to New York. I begged and pleaded with him to take me with him because I had never been to the MoMA. It was my holy grail. I vividly remember walking through the MoMA for the first time and on the way out I bought some postcards, as one does. I still have them to this day. They've traveled with me everywhere. I’ve pinned them up on my wall in every bedroom, every dorm room. That museum and its collection encompass so many things I love. When you combine The Musée d'Orsay, another museum I love, and the MoMA, you pretty much have the entire history of modern art. The greatest painter who ever lived is Manet. He is the biggest punk-rocker of all time, in terms of painters.
What is it that makes you love Manet so much in particular?
Because he broke all the rules. He was a disruptor, and his work was the impetus, along with a few others, for the beginning of modern art. Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia are powerful and controversial to this day. Everybody thinks that modern art began with Duchamp, but it did not. It began way earlier. I love the history of art. I love seeing the throughline from one movement to the next and how one influences the other.
You mentioned your passion for Manet and some of those other figures, but what kind of art do you actually collect and live with?
If I had enough money, I would buy a Rothko and a Fontana. In Paris, when I was living there as a young designer, I would work for art. I remember I started collecting street art really early on before anybody really cared. I bought Banksy for a couple of hundred dollars from Pictures on Walls, which was a small gallery in London that was representing all these guys. I think one of those pieces recently sold for over $100,000. I think at the time, we purchased it for $500. I have a really beautiful Robert Longo and a Jim Dine piece. I love photography and have a beautiful Robert Polidori photograph. It’s one of the few pieces that actually hangs on a wall in my home – most things are just leaning in various places. It’s one of his photographs of downtown Amman which is where I was born. That's very meaningful to me, and I think the work of Polidori is really exquisite. I also have a William Klein print. What I buy can be eclectic and relatively ad hoc at times. As a graphic designer, I am also interested in art that communicates. In Paris, I recently found a couple of posters from the 1968 protest movement. They weren't meant as ‘art’ per see, but from a graphic design perspective, they are very powerful and historic.
Where are you a regular? Are there any restaurants, shops or museums you frequent?
I go to the same five restaurants all the time. One of my favorites is still Odeon. I do like to walk around the city a lot and observe the streets. But if we're talking about art, I do my rounds all the time. The MoMA and Whitney are my regular spots. Before COVID, I would be in either one of those places every two weeks whether there’s a show or not, especially with MoMA because for a long time the stuff didn't move. It was like visiting regular friends. One regular place I go to is Mmuseumm in Cortlandt Alley. I was there this weekend. It's a little museum in an elevator shaftway in a back alley in Tribeca, and I’ve been to every single show.
What have you been listening to lately?
I listen to a pretty eclectic range. I can go from Biggie to Max Richter to Trap and back to classical in one day.
Last question. What are you doing right after this conversation?
I have creative office hours. I'm new at Tiffany and I'm reworking the structuring of how the creative teams work together. And so rather than it being very structured approval processes, we've instigated these creative hours where we just get together in the creative space and talk about the work that we're doing. It becomes much more of an equal level back and forth of "Here are ideas. Here's where we want to take them. How do you feel about this?"