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Betty Cooke: Art + Work
How do you run a successful craft business? There's no shortage of resources on the subject, but ask Betty Cooke and she'll tell you it comes down to three simple things: good design, rapport, and perseverance. The renowned jeweler must be on to something; for more than 45 years, along with her husband Bill Steinmetz, she has operated The Store Ltd., a fine craft shop in Baltimore.
Cooke, whose modernist pieces can be found at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, began making jewelry in the 1940s. Playful interpretations of simple, timeless forms are what set her apart as a maker. "Impish at times, always inventive, this is the kind of jewelry that invites us to think, but defies logic," curator Richard Martin wrote in our December/January 1996 issue.
Cooke opened The Store Ltd. in 1965. "This was before places like Crate and Barrel," she says. "We had a gourmet section, we had clothing, we had Marimekko fabric, and a lot of products that could only [otherwise] be found at places like the Museum of Modern Art."
To this day, Cooke carries a wide range of work across mediums, specializing in decorative housewares and handmade clothing. She selects much of the work herself. While her keen eye for design and high standards of craftsmanship have helped The Store Ltd. flourish, building lifelong relationships with patrons is what sustains her commercially and emotionally. "It's wonderful to have people come back who have bought pieces 30, 40, 50 years ago who still have, enjoy, and wear them - and perhaps have handed the pieces down through generations. It means a lot to me."
At 87, Cooke, elected to ACC's College of Fellows in 1996, remains deeply involved in everyday store operations. While she finds joy in meeting with customers and working on custom designs, she admits that balancing the dual roles of retailer and artist can be difficult. "Most people prefer to be in the studio with a lot of time for themselves," she observes. "For me, working out of The Store, it's a great deal of hours and interruptions." In spite of this challenge, however, she says she couldn't imagine life any other way.
"Early on we thought, ‘We'll just start a little store.' That was in 1965, and we're still here!"
Jessica Shaykett is the American Craft Council librarian.