VISNJA BRDAR’S FATHER ALWAYS TOLD HER SHE COULD DO ANYTHING. SO SHE STARTED HER OWN GRAPHIC DESIGN BUSINESS STRAIGHT OUT OF UNIVERSITY, THEN WENT INTO JEWELLERY.
New York-based jewellery designer and creative director Visnja Brdar grew up 17,000km away in the small seaside suburb of Drumcondra in Geelong. Her father was a house-painter who wore a shirt and tie under his overalls every day and convinced all his clients to use only the colour white. Her neighbour was a stylish French woman with a pixie haircut who rode an Hermès bike with a wicker basket full of fresh produce. Brdar may not have grown up in the design centre of the world – or anywhere near it – but you don’t have to look far to see where she may have found her inspirations.
“My clearest memories of design [when I was young] was when I didn’t like something, I would throw it in the garbage. If I got a present I didn’t like, if my mum had something on the mantel I thought was ugly, I would dispose of it,” Brdar tells WISH from her office near Central Park in Manhattan. “And there was my father. I would definitely say that my father was an aesthetic influence and informed my awareness of design. He was a very stylish man [from Croatia] who wore tailor-made suits. People stopped him in the street because he looked like Roger Moore.”
One of four children, Brdar always knew she wouldn’t spend her life in small seaside suburb in Geelong. As a teenager she would dream about big cities. “Even on the Geelong to Melbourne highway, I would look at those lights, thinking that is where I belong, I don’t belong in this little town,” she says. But even she may not have imagined that she would go beyond those lights to Paris, Rome and eventually New York to work as a graphic designer with some very big names before opening her own creative agency and then starting a jewellery business on the side.
“My Dad always said that I could do anything and everything I wanted in life. He was a go-getter,” she says. “He taught me that nothing was impossible. That is one of the greatest gifts to me as I really took that to heart.” Brdar discovered her love of art in high school. It was at first a refuge from a rough time at the local all-girls school. Teachers then told her she could study graphic design and it opened her eyes to a future career. “It gave me a lot of joy so I followed that path,” she says.
Brdar was accepted into Swinburne University of Technology and to her shock was named the top student in her first year. “I almost fainted,” she says, laughing. “I just remember working my arse off but I had no idea whether I was good, bad or indifferent.” After four years studying, she took her first big risk: she rejected a number of offers for a full-time job and instead decided to set up her own graphic design business – in her early 20s and with absolutely no experience. “I started by cold-calling. I asked myself who I wanted to work for so I called Chris Connell, who was this great architect in Melbourne and I showed him some work and he said, great, I will give you a project,” Brdar says.
She set up an office in Prahran and was soon designing for the Sydney Opera House, Scanlon Theodore and Bettina Liano. Brdar did everything from hand-made Christmas cards to restaurant menus to corporate logos. But after 12 months she was yearning for bigger city lights so she saved up, got a passport and took off for Paris. “I was like a free bird,” she recalls. “I had enough money to keep me going for a while but I had no agenda to return to Australia at any point. I had no idea. The only plan was to continue to do great work with interesting people and explore the world.”
Brdar managed to get the phone number of acclaimed Australian designer Marc Newson, called him and was hired to create a book of his work in a very limited edition of five. “I made them all by hand,” she says. “It was 50 pages of his furniture and interiors. Even at that time, his work was getting recognised.” Brdar continued to work with Newson, designing “whatever he needed”, such as a special brochure for his new watch. Rome was next and she did a short stint with legendary graphic designer Tibor Kalman and his