Max Büsser’s Accidental Art Gallery Empire

When Maximilian Büsser opened the original Mechanical Art Devices Gallery in Geneva, in October 2011, he never expected to sell any of the artworks on display.

They were simply meant to contextualize his watchmaking collective, MB&F, and its experimental Horological Machines line of timepieces—“to demonstrate our path of thinking,” he says. But the gallery proved an incredible success as a showplace for fantastical kinetic art. So successful, in fact, that it spawned two satellite locations: Taipei and Dubai, which opened in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

Achille Varzi at the Circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, circa 1947. The photo is part of M.A.D. Geneva’s “For the Thrill of Speed” exhibition, featuring the work of French racing photographer René Pari.

For Büsser, a veteran of the watch and jewelry industry, the M.A.D. gallery led to a second professional life, as a curator. It’s a role he never expected but very clearly loves. His newfound passion for fine art and fascination with machinery meet in “For the Thrill of Speed,” a rare static exhibition at M.A.D. Geneva. It encompasses a collection of auto racing photographs by the late French racing photographer René Pari, which were painstakingly resurrected from damaged negatives by artists Daniel Berque and Serge Brison.

Before the grand opening of “For the Thrill of Speed” in Geneva, Büsser spoke to Watch Journal about the origins of the gallery, what he looks for in an artist, and why he prefers co-creation to inspiration.

What was the genesis of the gallery concept?

Most retailers didn’t understand what we were trying to do with our Horological Machines. They’d look at our pieces and say, ‘This is not a watch.’ I thought maybe our pieces should be presented in art galleries, so I went to see some art galleries, and they said, ‘Well, this isn’t art, it’s a watch.’ Clearly, something wasn’t working.

I realized I needed some sort of hybrid concept. It had to be an art gallery which was specifically catering to mechanical or kinetic art, so people would understand what we were trying to do. Initially, it was like a decoding machine. If you understand Frank Buchwald and his incredible machine lights, then maybe you’ll understand our Horological Machine. If you want a motorbike, you go get a Ducati, or a Harley Davidson; if you want a work of art, you get a Chicara Nagata. By the same token, if you want the time, you buy a Samsung or an Apple Watch. If you want a piece of art, you buy an MB&F.

What do you look for in an artist and where do you find them?

Initially, we were scouring the internet. Remember, we had a blog, “Parallel World,” on the website, and every week for ten years we had a post always talking about things that amazed me—things that I wanted to share. In doing this, I bumped into a lot of incredible creations and creators. We were very active at the beginning looking for artists we’d be proud to showcase; now we have a certain amount of artists who contact us.

I always say the M.A.D. Gallery is an orphanage because virtually all of the artists we showcase are either misunderstood or shunned by traditional galleries. Because traditional galleries are usually interested in paintings, photos, mixed media. Kinetic art is something ninety-nine percent of galleries don’t understand or want to deal with.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

Definitely Damien Bénéteau, who does these incredible light sculptures. There is of course Bob Potts, the American artist who does these flying machines, which are so beautiful—real kinetic art. There is this incredible Turkish artist, Server Demirtaş, who had a solo show last May. He does these android robots who come to life and they’re mind-boggling. And we introduced an English kinetic artist called Ivan Black who created what looks like a lamp, which is actually a kinetic art piece that starts moving, and does incredible choreography. And I’ll finish with Nils Völker, who does choreography—we’re very much into choreography these days. Artists who create pieces that are beautiful to look at but when they start moving, they’re like a ballet.

Frank Buchwald
“Machine Lights Type No. 5” feels anatomical, mounting hand-crafted
lamps on alien-like, four-footed bases with quasi-corporeal symmetry
Server Demirtas
“Contemplating Woman’s Machine III” incorporates a complex network of
wires and Plexiglas cogs to execute hauntingly fluid movements
Chicara Nagata
“Art Three” took nearly 6,000 hours to complete, an undertaking that
involved more than 500 custom components, each fabricated by hand
Nils Völker
“Royal Blue” features 16 decorative honeycombs, which fold, unfold, and
pirouette in unison. Think: oragami flowers meet synchronized swimming.

Ivan Black
“Nebula Hive” is chandelier for the 21st century, a luminous vortex that
variably dims and spins to transform into countless celestial forms.

Do you find yourself inspired by the artwork when creating timepieces for MB&F?

I’m sure I am, but it’s not something very blatant. It’s not like I love Frank Buchwald’s machine lights, and then say, “Let’s do a watch that captures his style.” I wouldn’t have much pride in copying something that exists from someone who’s created something incredible. It actually infuses me. There are times when we’ve co-created, as with the LM1 Xia Hang, which has the little alien who falls asleep as a power reserve indicator [a collaboration with Chinese sculptor Xia Hang]. So we will sit down and say, “Why don’t we create something together?”

How do “co-creations” work?

The first co-creation we did was with Reuge, the music box company. It happened because we had some Reuge boxes at the beginning of M.A.D. Gallery; I loved them but they didn’t speak to me. So I went to them and we made MusicMachine 1 [an unconventional music box]. Then we started doing the clocks, the Caran d’Ache pen [known as the Astrograph]. All these clocks, music boxes, and pens very much have in mind creating 3-D kinetic art for the galleries. So it’s sort of, what goes around comes around. The gallery was there to make people understand MB&F and now MB&F is creating objects for the gallery.

Stage Craft – Hermès joins SIHH

How the high-fashion brand Hermès stole this year’s first show in Geneva.

At Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, the watches are only part of the celebration. There’s the people, the vibe, the scenery—and, of course, the displays. Watch companies go bonkers at the annual trade show, wheeling in ornate props and jumbo signage, effectively staging grandiose pop-ups inside Palexpo Center in Geneva. Hermès, which made its SIHH debut this year, has clearly been taking notes. The brand didn’t just show up. It made a scene. Literally.

PHOTO: Courtesy Hermès

Credit goes to RDAI, the Paris-based architecture studio that created a custom atrium for Hermès at the show. Also to Levi van Veluw, the award-winning Dutch artist who designed the installations inside. Van Veluw, 33, is known for his layered wood carvings, intricate and geometric compositions that often incorporate beads and filigree and colorfully painted elements. He previously collaborated with Hermès on a series of acclaimed window displays, installed at boutiques in Shanghai and New York, in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

But working within the confines of a trade event, and RDAI’s atrium, meant rethinking the approach yet again—something that became apparent to van Veluw during the early sketching phase and that informed the final product.

PHOTO: Courtesy Hermès

“I discovered the idea of making a fragmented sculpture through the limitations of drawing a perfect cube, which eventually became part of the [SIHH] installation’s overall concept,” van Veluw says. “The shapes are still symmetrical, but the way they form the overall sculpture is totally random and asymmetrical. It has something playful to it that naturally occurs when making a drawing.”

The resulting chamber-like centerpiece, called “The Alchemist,” was a standout at Palexpo. It featured a blocky, canary-colored exterior, with an explosion of blue-lacquered wood flotsam inside.

PHOTO: Courtesy Hermès

“It highlights the paradox of something complex that looks easy,” van Veluw says. “The inside is not a watchmaker’s atelier. It is instead chaos. Watchmaking gives the image of an industry that seeks perfection, where everything is always clean-cut. But I believe that no great idea, no strong innovation, arises from perfection. I instead think that chaos is key. And chaos is what I wanted to express inside. Like the mind of the watchmaker, full of ideas.”

PHOTO: Courtesy Hermès

SIHH showgoers were invited to step into the chamber, the bottom of which was transparent; you were actually stepping onto glass placed above the floor, giving the impression of floating. The new Hermès Carré H wristwatches were displayed in various stages of assembly.

“I put them in the center, as if they were the beating heart of the mechanism,” says Van Veluw. “Your gaze is drawn toward the watches thanks to the use of fascinating shapes like spirals.”

PHOTO: Courtesy Hermès

Nine original van Veluw window displays surrounded “The Alchemist,” rounding out the French fashion house’s watershed exhibition area.

“I wanted [the display] to be in harmony with the pavilion’s architecture, so it would not be aggressive” he explains. “I prefer people to be drawn by my art, rather than driven away by something impressive and arrogant.”

PHOTO: Courtesy Hermès