Groundbreaking Jeweler: Margaret De Patta

Groundbreaking Jeweler: Margaret De Patta

Margaret De Patta, jewelry artist

Margaret De Patta became a seminal figure in the emerging mid-century studio jewelry movement. 

Lee Fatherree

Jewelry artist Margaret De Patta (1903-1964) was a product of her time – influenced by the Bauhaus school, constructivism, and democratic ideals. But she was also ahead of her time: She yearned to make sophisticated jewelry for the general public, but she couldn’t make the business model work. Her spirit, marriage, and finances flagging, De Patta took her own life in her early 60s. But she remains a figure of influence among jewelry makers today. Her work is the subject of a major retrospective planned collaboratively by the Oakland Museum of California and the Museum of Art and Design in New York. We asked MAD curator of jewelry Ursula Ilse-Neuman and OMCA associate curator of design and decorative arts Julie Muñiz to tell us about the artist, her work, and the exhibitions.

American Craft: How did the Margaret De Patta exhibition come about? And why now, almost 50 years after her death?

Ursula Ilse-Neuman: I initiated the exhibition because the outstanding examples of De Patta’s jewelry in the Museum of Arts and Design’s collection were a constant reminder that this pioneering modernist jewelry had been neglected even as the interest in the jewelry of this period was growing. Her jewelry expresses the historical intersection of the German Bauhaus and American design, something I was interested in exploring. De Patta envisioned a piece of jewelry as a dynamic object capable of changing perceptions of space and movement by creating reflections, optical illusions, and unexpected alterations of light. It was time for a reexamination of her life and work.

Julie Muñiz: The timing of this project was very serendipitous for me. I had just started my position at the Oakland Museum of California, and it was in my mind to do a De Patta retrospective. The museum always has had her jewelry on display, but the last exhibition was in 1976 – more than 30 years ago. Her work needed and deserved re-evaluation. When Ursula called me, I jumped at the chance.

AC: De Patta's jewelry has been called "wearable sculpture" and "a radical departure from jewelry as body ornament." What, specifically, made it so revolutionary, so different from other jewelry of the 1930s, '40s and '50s?

UN: Before De Patta, jewelry was either a costly luxury item, a relatively unimaginative craft object, or a mass-produced piece with conventional forms and stone settings that looked back to Victorian and earlier designs. In contrast to other mid-century American jewelers, De Patta applied the intellect and rational approach of an architect to her designs, basing them on constructivist principles, employing non-representational designs and considering her art inextricably linked to social change. She worked as a sculptor would, making space and light her principal “materials” and in doing so, turning her back on tradition and challenging the wearer to adopt a different concept of value based on innovative design as well as new and masterful techniques, not on the raw value of the materials or craftsmanship alone.

JM: De Patta was unique in that she came to the field of jewelry with a strong background in modernist painting. She approached jewelry as an artist would. Her jewelry is less about bling and adornment than it is about light and movement.

AC: De Patta was known for attaching stones to her jewelry in innovative ways and for her "opti-cuts." Did those innovations influence other jewelry makers? In what other ways did she influence other artists?

JM: Ever since I started working on this project, I’ve started seeing De Patta’s influence everywhere. I think her impact is stronger than a lot of contemporary jewelers even realize. The opticuts she created with Francis Sperisen – the double lens cut, for example – can be seen frequently in jewelry today. In addition, I see a lot of contemporary jewelers using quartz with rutile and tourmaline inclusions. These stones weren’t often used before De Patta made them popular.

UN: While De Patta had no well-known disciples per se during her lifetime, her influence affected the art jewelry movement as a whole and continues to have impact on many contemporary practitioners. American jeweler Eleanor Moty credits De Patta’s timeless design and innovative lapidary techniques with altering her design aesthetic. After becoming acquainted with De Patta’s work in 1965, she started allowing stones to dictate the creation of the piece and the spatial arrangements. She used semi-transparent crystals and rutilated and tourmaline quartz to highlight the visual effects created by the interaction of light and internal inclusions. German-born Barbara Seidenath, who teaches at RISD, was struck by the “clarity of [De Patta’s] designs and the innovative use of optical effects” as well as the “unusual ways of suspending and setting stones.” Like De Patta, she wants her jewelry to be available to a wider audience, and in the early 1980s she collaborated on a serial production line. In this, Seidenath is joined by several jewelry artists working in small series in addition to their one-of-a kind pieces – John Iverson, Lola Brooks, and Joan Parcher, among them.

AC:  How unconventional was De Patta in her day? She had four husbands, the last one eight years her junior. She converted a bungalow into a Bauhaus-inspired structure, which probably made it hard to sell later, when she struggled financially. What did you learn about De Patta the person in putting together this exhibition?

UN: She was remarkably liberated in an era that had not yet experienced women’s lib. She never accepted the conventional path, teaching herself jewelry making, inventing new techniques and not compromising on her modernist principles. She lived her art, following the Bauhaus principles to merge life and art, and created an art expressive of her time and the social changes taking place. She was determined to pass on the lessons of constructivism and the Bauhaus to the broader public, often selflessly. The decision to mass-produce her designs was a natural outcome of her belief in a democratic approach to design, but it also necessarily ran contrary to her creative impulses and desire as an artist to create works attaining her highest aesthetic goals. This is a conflict that goes back to William Morris and the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement.

JM: Margaret was the kind of person who excelled at everything she put her mind to. She was both talented and industrious—as a child she drew greeting cards, which she then sold to her neighbors for pennies. In addition, she was a very strong woman who began a career making luxury goods during the Depression. It couldn’t have been easy. But she always stuck to her vision and to her ideals.

AC:  De Patta felt a "social responsibility" to make jewelry for the "largest number of people possible." Yet the post-war public thought herproduction work was too expensive, which she found very disappointing. Do you think she might have found more venues and acceptance for her work today?

UN: Definitely. This is an eclectic period with a universal acceptance of concepts from the abstract to the political, of materials from the precious to found objects and even trash, and the importance of cross-cultural influences. De Patta loved to travel and engage in seminars and the exchange of ideas. There are international forums today, such as Munich's annual Jewelry Week, known as Schmuck, which celebrates jewelers as masters of modernism, and she would undoubtedly be successful financially as well. She might also have pursued a career in architecture, a field that was not open to women in the 1920s.

Furthermore, looking back at the legal and social discrimination against women in the 1950s and early 1960s, she did not benefit from the women’s movement and Gloria Steinem as a forceful advocate for women’s issues. De Patta might well have gained strength from this movement had she lived into the 1970s.

JM: It’s easy to forget how avant-garde her designs were during her life. Today, with the popularity of modernist design, her work is easily accepted. Still, there are several contemporary jewelers who are pushing boundaries just like De Patta did. Like De Patta’s, their work isn’t for everyone, but they have a small, dedicated audience.

AC: The later years of De Patta's life were very difficult, and ultimately she took her own life. Are there lessons in her life for other artists?

UN: De Patta was frustrated and angry at the failure of her jewelry to sell, which she attributed to the unwillingness of the broader public to accept new designs that went against convention. She viewed that closed-mindedness as a herd instinct and saw herself as a victim of a consumer society that was driven by a lack of self-confidence.

Her depression and suicide were probably linked to her deteriorating financial condition, which can be traced in part to the failed Designs Contemporary production venture. The problems with her failing marriage were also related to the sense of failure and depression that her husband experienced because he had, in many ways, more invested in Designs Contemporary since he was not an artist and could not return to jewelry making when the venture failed. I concluded that since De Patta had always considered herself a contemporary artist on the cutting edge of the art of her time, the advent of such alien movements as pop art and funk art would have been antithetical to her rational approach to design. It might well have been difficult for her to see herself as out of touch with "modern art."

JM: It’s very important for artists to be savvy in business, as well as excellent in their craft. Margaret was a great self-promoter, but she didn’t understand the marketplace. Her efforts in serial production might have been more successful had she better understood consumer needs. Today, I meet artists who create different lines of jewelry for sale in different markets. This is a very smart move.

AC:  What do you hope people take away from this show?

UN: I hope people gain a wider appreciation for De Patta as a historical figure and as an artist. De Patta is not well known in Europe and the lasting impact of this project (and the accompanying 144-page catalog in particular) was to stress her importance and reveal the enduring brilliance of her jewelry.

Also, the far-reaching influence of the Bauhaus and its teaching philosophy has been thoroughly explored in architecture, design, and photography, but its impact on jewelry has hardly ever been discussed.

There are other broader lessons in De Patta’s story. It is both sad and ironic that Bauhaus educational principles and concepts of democratic design were found to be subversive by both Hitler and McCarthy. De Patta was blacklisted for her associations with the Labor School, but continued her attempts to open a school modeled on Bauhaus principles.

JM: It would be wonderful if Margaret De Patta became a household name like Lewis Comfort Tiffany or René Lalique. Both these men designed beautiful jewelry, among other things, and continue to influence artists and designers today. But mostly, I want people to remember Margaret not just for the beauty of her work, but also for her artistic vision—infusing complex modernist design principles into such intimate and personal objects as rings and brooches. It takes true mastery and love of your craft to do that.

“Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta” runs through May 13 at the Oakland Museum of California and from June 5 to September 23 at the Museum of Art and Design. Monica Moses is American Craft’s editor in chief.