Climbing Over Barricades

Climbing Over Barricades

Robert Lee Morris, Iconic Block Bracelet

Robert Lee Morris, Iconic block bracelet, made of gold-plated brass block. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

“I’d always sort of hated jewelry when I was a kid,” says Robert Lee Morris, now one of the most influential jewelry designers in the world. “I saw it as my grandmother’s ugly baroque jewelry, drenched in old perfume.”

But in the years after art school in the late 1960s, his view changed. Living in a commune in Wisconsin, Morris forged brass necklaces, listened to Led Zeppelin, and imagined his designs on the cover of Vogue. It was when he tried a craft fair in New England that he was discovered by gallery owner Joan Sonnabend. Soon his jewelry was displayed alongside that of Picasso and Louise Nevelson, and coveted by affluent collectors. He became a fixture on the New York art scene. In 1976, his vision was complete: His jewelry graced the cover of Vogue.

But his early good fortune ran out. In 1977, Sonnabend’s gallery closed suddenly, and he couldn’t find another venue; Morris was shattered. Ultimately he fell back on his own resources, calling on the adaptability he learned growing up in a military family that had moved 23 times by the time he was 18. Within months, he opened Artwear, a jewelry gallery, and began to collaborate with some of fashion’s foremost designers. Over the next few years, Morris won the Coty award for his collection for Calvin Klein, appeared in every issue of Vogue for seven consecutive years, and was recognized several times by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, including a lifetime achievement award. Artwear closed in 1995; later that year, Morris’ flagship store opened in lower Manhattan as an exclusive showcase for his work.

Today he designs the RLM Studio line for QVC and the Soho line for department stores. In 2012 he launched the high-end Collection line at retailers nationwide. American Craft sat down with him at his studios on Fifth Avenue and asked him about his four-decade career – and his advice for artists just starting out.

What did you learn in art school?
My luck was that my mentor at Beloit College in Wisconsin taught creativity more than he taught technique. He was a sculptor from Georgia named George Garner. When a parade was in town, he’d have us bring our sketchbooks, but nothing to draw with other than whatever we could find there. We’d draw majorettes using just twigs, then use washes of color back at the studio to bring them to life.

I learned that you are responsible for your actions, and you have to make a decision as to why you’re here.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
You have to make a living doing what you love. If you play it safe in your career but it doesn’t resonate with you, you’re not there yet. It’s time to reinvent that, at any cost. You don’t want to live in a state of anything less than just total bliss.

How did this happen for you?
After college I got this really bad itch to start a commune. I asked my friends at Beloit if they were interested, and they all were. It was the moment for hippies and crafts. We each taught ourselves our own craft. I was “discovered” in 1971 at a craft fair in Putney, Vermont. A manager at a gallery in Boston bought a tribal-like brass necklace for $75 and wore it to work the next day. The owners were about to open the gallery Sculpture to Wear at the Plaza Hotel [in New York], and they wanted to see more. They said, “We love what you’re doing, and we want to represent you exclusively. We think you are going to be very, very famous.” Soon, I was meeting all these artists like Roy Lichtenstein, John Chamberlain, and Jasper Johns. I was making jewelry in that environment, and in the gallery it was jewelry by Picasso, Calder, Man Ray, Miró, Arp, Louise Nevelson, and on and on. When they sold the hotel and closed the gallery, I thought I would have no trouble finding a place of equal prestige to show my work. But I couldn’t.

What happened next?
I had a complete meltdown and realized I had to do it myself. And when I opened Artwear just months later, it was like it was destined to be. I had just enough money and borrowed $10,000 from a college chum, and I put it together right off Madison on 74th Street. I took a chance that it would be a good location because Andy Warhol was supposed to open the Andy-Mat restaurant across the street. Once I signed my lease, though, he got out of his. But my place attracted the attention of the super-rich. They would buy my masks and crazy pieces, take them to Studio 54 and play with Andy and Elsa Peretti and Halston and all these people, and then they all started coming in.

I became that guy who did Calvin Klein’s jewelry and Donna Karan’s jewelry, who could collaborate without ego with a fashion designer who wanted something particularly original, that had to look like me, but also new and right for the show. And then, I became me!

You have steadily envisioned your success. How do you deal with obstacles or insecurities?
If I ever came across a barricade, I would overcome it with entrepreneurialism. I would just crawl over it; I wouldn’t let it stop me. I don’t look left or right at what other people are  doing, so I don’t see it as a race. I see it as a community, because I love all the people in this field. I never thought, “OK, I have so much to compete with,” I thought, “Hold on, they’ve never seen anything like this, because I’m going to do a collection of armor and pieces that are so savage and so futuristic,” and then I did them. And when I did them, the editors and galleries went berserk.

Are you a craftsperson or an artist?
At Sculpture to Wear, I realized that art jewelry is on the same level as any other fine art that’s in a museum. Long ago, I decided: Just smash it, make it a stupid question; it’s no longer relevant. Craft? Fashion? Art? Who cares? What matters is what you do and how you change the world and what you leave behind – and how much your pieces go for on  eBay!

Keith Lewis is a jewelry artist in New York state.