TWO WITH NATURE
Helena Christensen & Camilla Staerk On Creative Collaboration
Let’s start with the basics: Helena Christensen is a globally famous photographer and model, one of the “magnificent seven” — along with Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Elle Macpherson, and Claudia Schiffer — who inspired the term “supermodel” in the 1990s. Camilla Staerk is a fashion designer with a stark (no pun intended), sculptural vision that references historical and modern art, with a gothic severity of line and form. They’re Danes and want you to know it. And, like many of us, they’re NYC creatives who understand that our region can be the most fertile of muses.
Their collaboration began almost two decades ago. In 2000 Christensen was living in NYC and had recently cofounded Nylon magazine. Staerk was living in London, had studied fashion and textiles, sold her graduate collection to career-launchpad boutique Browns, and was about to debut at London Fashion Week. Christensen shot her portrait and the collection for the magazine, and the chemistry was instant: “We completely clicked creatively and personally that day,” Staerk recalls. The two went on to shoot Staerk’s first look book on the streets of Prague, casting the models and hair and makeup talent. The result was a little hand-bound, limited-edition book, which the two still view as emblematic of their creative partnership. “To this day it really sums up our bond and how our sensibilities meet,” says Staerk.
That alignment continued over the years, and the two collaborated with various brands on special projects, including a loungewear collection for Anthropologie under the name Edith 11 and a jewelry collection for Danish heritage watch brand Skagen. Eventually, 15 years after they met, the pair formed Staerk&Christensen, a multidisciplinary studio that “dabbles” (as their website modestly puts it) in fashion, furniture, architecture, photography, film, and more.
So how do a model and photographer and a designer and artist approach, say, an architectural project? The duo was approached by Revolution Precrafted, a producer of starchitect-designed prefab buildings, to design their version of a Scandinavian cabin. Their process was to huddle and sketch, and after the first session the concept — a swallow’s wings — was complete. The result is a suite of purchasable structures: a dwelling, a gym, and a summer pavilion with an elegant, arching roof that trails to slender descenders composed of lacquered black wood that do indeed resemble the wingspan of a swallow. In the collaboration, the duo joins an illustrious roster of architects commissioned by the firm, including Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Philip Johnson.
Given the diverse media in which the studio works, and the pair’s distinct backgrounds, I was curious as to what linked their endeavors, both individually and collectively. “A dark romance,” Staerk replies. “Our mutual love for our birth country and Danish designers through the times, plus our love for nature.” She further explains that there’s an inherent melancholy that runs through the creative endeavors of Scandinavians, as well as an appreciation of the organic. Perhaps this is something to do with the degree to which Norse people are so profoundly affected by the vicissitudes and harshness of their climate. Dark winters inspire melancholy poetry; abundant summers drive the need to create, build, and grow.
I ask Christensen how photography and modeling had shaped her as a creative individual, and what they contributed to Staerk&Christensen. “I have done both careers alongside each other all these years and am constantly learning from one to use in the other,” she replies. “[Modeling] is more silent and emotional, and [photography] is more engaging and collaborative.” The two are also filmmakers. The videos featured on the Staerk&Christensen website are shorts — elegant, heavily stylized, mostly black-and-white. The one entitled “Camilla & Helena” is perhaps the most self-indulgent, composed of lingering shots of each of the two, set to an artificial soundtrack of an old film projector. It should be noted that while Christensen is one of the most famous beauties of her era, Staerk too is strikingly attractive, with exceptional bone structure and the arched, plucked eyebrows of a 1920s silent film starlet; she wears a veil shockingly well. The other films have more or at least different narrative arcs, but all fall under the genre of “fashion film” — editorial stories of influential and/or pretty people (think Salman Rushdie, Waris Ahluwalia, Chrysta Bell) shot in video rather than still.
Travel is a constant muse for the duo, and they frequently explore new pastures together, but, as Staerk explains, there’s a circularity to travel in that it’s always, ultimately, about homecoming. “We always return to our Danish heritage for direction. Trips definitely broaden one’s horizon, but where you come from and how you were brought up, what history you bring with you, is what lays the foundation.”
Travel also means leaving New York City for upstate. Of the pair, Christensen was the one who first discovered the beauty of our region. “A photographer friend did a shoot with my son and me in his Catskills home,” she says, “and I fell in love.” Soon after she found a “rough diamond” of a house with a river on the grounds, and committed. The river was of particular importance to Christensen. Denmark, like the Catskills, is a land of lakes and streams, and Christensen is a devotee of freezing cold waterways. “When I jump in a freezing river at Christmastime, I feel closer to what it’s all about than ever. I feel very present, clear, and consciously raw in nature, especially when I’m swimming, so the mountains and rivers are heaven sent to me.” The region also functions as an antidote to the pressure cooker that is NYC. “Being in wild nature stimulates all my senses and stirs my inner creativity,” Christensen said. “I also love the energy and inspiration a crazy city gives me, but in nature, my breath and my thoughts flow easier and I want to create.”
In fact, the very process of heading out of the city begins a creative catharsis and work session for the two. They typically begin brainstorming new Staerk&Christensen projects in the car on the drive upstate, and then work on the key elements and details over the next few days, storyboarding photography and sketching out ideas. The fertility of the region drives creativity for Staerk and Christensen. “Everything seems to become so crystal-clear when here,” explains Staerk. “It deeply resonates with me and gives me a feeling of balance in life. It is the most inspirational place for us to work, as we are both so grounded in and inspired by nature.”
I think we would all agree.