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  an interview with

 B E T T Y   C O O K E
    by Marbeth Schon

June 13, 2001 
       

 

 


I visited Betty Cooke on June 13, 2001. We sat on wire chairs by a table in a courtyard outside her shop, The Store Ltd, in The Village of Cross Keys, Baltimore. She looked beautiful in black and Betty Cooke jewelry. As we conversed, she  observed all that was going on around us, obviously enjoying her surroundings and the passers- by. A shopperís dog, surprised by a life size statue of a cow in front of her store, barked excitedly. It was wonderful and funny and we laughed-- a delightful interruption!

Betty Cooke at The Store Ltd

Betty Cooke is gracious. She is  witty, warm and, above all , an artist whose jewelry evolves from her drawings. She is a perfectionist and an intrinsic modernist. Her designs, created from the synthesis of mathematics, architecture, and sculpture combined with the catalysts of her own unique wit and spontaneity, have forever secured her place as an icon within the tradition of modernist jewelry.   


A thread ran through each topic of our conversation and kept coming up again and again. Itís her customers that are of primary importance. Even with all the awards, museum shows, exhibitions, and articles which have brought Betty Cooke to prominence, itís the customers who 'like what she does' who commission her to create birthday and anniversary pieces, who keep coming back over the years for more jewelry, itís 'the people' who continue to inspire her.


the interview

 (please find questions by Marbeth Schon on the left and replies by Betty Cooke on the right)


First of all I want to say thank you for allowing me to interview you. Iíve been looking forward to this for an entire year!

Well thatís very nice!

I would like to know more about your early life. What do you remember about your earliest inspiration to be an artist?

 silver, onyx necklace


Well, that goes way back you know. Way back. I think even as a child I always collected things that I thought were beautiful and it ended up being quite a big collectionópebbles and shells and seedpods and then I used to draw a lot and so it was just automatic that I went to an art college. This was during the war so I actually took teacher education because I had to get a degree and that was the only way you could get a degree through the Maryland Institute at Hopkins. I was exposed to all kinds of things. The jewelry was not my intention. In the beginning I wanted to be a sculptor, but this was during the war and after the war and there werenít many avenues for that at the time so I thought, well, Iíll earn a living and so Iíve been doing that ever since with jewelry. The intention was just to make nice pieces and it just grew, and I thought this wonít last long and Iíll get into something else. And here it is 50 years later!

Were your parents artists?


My father painted, but he wasnít a professional artist and my mother was into music, but she was artistic in other ways, and her two brothers were engineers so I had this combination of the creative free (spirit) and the logical.

 

 It says in the book Messengerís of Modernism that you apprenticed with a local jeweler during your early college years at John Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute, College of Art. Who was that?

                 silver ring

 Her name was Carothers and she did flowers, little delicate flowers like roses and all kinds of things that I didnít really understand or didnít really appreciate except that she was nice and she taught me how to solder. I always liked the stems. I always liked the simple parts of what I put together so I just automatically went into this simple approach which I guess is instinctive.

Did she allow you to make your own pieces?


I was helping her but it was easy to get a torch and set up. Oh she was fine and very nice to me.

Was she an inspiration to go into jewelry instead of sculpture?

 

   silver, wood pendant

 


No, I think the inspiration was the fact that people liked what I did. I had a very tiny house that was a shop and it was just very nice to have architects, designers, professional doctors-- I was in a doctorís neighborhood and they somehow liked what I was doing and that was exciting.

But I did do other things all those years. My husband and I designed for architects and we did showrooms and offices and commercial things and exhibitions. We did an exhibition for the Corcoran Gallery one year so we were into all good design at that time.

Which particular show or award do you feel helped to launch your career-- helped you take off?

 


Iíve been taking off the whole time! I donít know. I havenít done everything yet!

 It was very exciting to have contact with the Walker Art Center. My friend and I camped across the country and I had a little box of jewelry that I was selling along the way and I went to the Walker Art Center and they were just putting the show together and it just fell in line so they included about six or eight pieces of mine in their show. It was called Good Design Jewelry and this was in the '40s. 


So you worked your way across country selling jewelry?

silver, wood, cord
pendant

I had a box of jewelry and went in and introduced myself and that was it. Actually, what I was really trying to do at that time--there were some very handsome showrooms for furniture, for Knoll and Eames and all these wonderful people, and I had a series of stores that I thought should carry contemporary jewelry and I was trying to talk them into display cases and having a section of jewelry which was very related to the furniture and the lighting and the whole design revolution because there were no jewelry stores that would sell that (kind of jewelry)-- there wasnít anything except maybe the American Craft Council in New York. And there werenít galleries at that time that would take it.

 

 

Jewelry wasnít accepted as an art form?

 


No, not really. There werenít any places to sell it. There was a store in Bloomfield Hills that sold it. So that was my mission, but it didnít work out very well. There was a store called 1Frasers (in San Francisco) that carried contemporary furniture.


What was it like teaching returning World War II veterans? You must not have been much older than they were.

 gold, onyx bracelet

 

Well, at that time the Maryland Institute had about 80 students and one of them was a boy and the rest of us were woman. This was during the war. So then all of a sudden (after the war) they had about 300 or so. I had classes of 60 and 70 students and I taught something called design and materials which was how to work with all kinds of materials like leather, wood, gold, steel, and also the basic elements of design that were necessary. Yes, it was very excitingóit was wonderful!

 

                  


I read that you had to teach them soldering so it was a lot of technique you were teaching and not just design.

Oh, it was techniqueówe had welding and soldering and there was a woodshop.

How did you manage teaching, running a shop and making jewelry?  You must have been working all the time.

Sure! You just did it!


You have had many awards throughout your career. Which have meant the most to you?

  

gold, pyrite, diamond, rings

I  guess 2DeBeers was nice because it was International. At the time, the person in charge of it really liked my whole concept. It wasnít just that award. She liked what I was trying to do. She saw a lot of pieces of mine. That was very nice and led to working with Geoffrey Beane.

So you became internationally known through that?


In a way. And it was in Vogue and Bazaar.

Was the retrospective exhibit at your alma mater, the Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1995 especially meaningful for you?

gold, pearl brooch


That was wonderful. The whole exhibition was exciting. I had cases of things that I did in the 40s and another case on the 50s and another on the 60s and many  private collections, but the most interesting thing was that we had about 800 people come and they all had jewelry. That was a riot. It was like "oh , I havenít seen that since---!" And it was really warm and friendly and the customers--see, itís always the customers. They were so glad to be a part of it. It was nice.

What do you feel is the difference in approaching jewelry making as an art form rather than a craft?



 silver, wood earrings

 
I think design. My concept of design is extremely important. I think there are a lot of people who are very organic in their approaches to things, but I do like very architectural clean-cut simple things that look as if they are very easy to make. Sometimes they are and sometimes they arenít, but it has to have perfectionóthey have to be perfect in the design itself. Everything has to be logical and clear. And if itís held together with something it has to be decorative. Nothing is hidden. I guess I judge a lot of people by that, and yet there are a lot of people who do things that are much freer and wilder that I think are wonderful too, but thatís not my nature.
Yes, to be satisfied with your own work. Thatís how it has to be.

 


And you canít change it. Sometimes people will come in and ask for a look and Iíll think, well, you know thatís not my look but Iíll try something (different) but it just doesnít work. If you are honest with yourself it just doesnít work out that way.
I think thatís what gets us where we want to go if we are honest with ourselves.

I think from teaching and everything else itís a real disgrace when people copy things. And it happens a lot.
Iíve always thought it interesting that even though an artist creates many different things, say paintings, sculpture, jewelry, there is a quality in each that identifies it as their work. What is the quality in a Betty Cooke design that identifies it as a Betty Cooke?

Yes, itís interesting. Itís your song. Itís your voice or your expression. I hear all the time--someone was up from Charleston, South Carolina the other day and she has a lot of my pieces and she said, " I must tell you this, we had this wonderful partyótheyíre Huguenots and they had this big affair and so forth and three people walked in and they didnít say hello, they said, ĎThatís a Betty Cooke!"

What was your reason for not going into production jewelry?

gold  pendant

I just never got around to it. I would like to because I have a lot of designs that we donít make-- they are either difficult to make with the techniques we have or we can only make so much as itís a small business. A lot of them I would like to see produced , but it would have to be somebody else doing it. I did do some work with Stieff company for a while which is a local and very honorable group of people which they wholesaledówell, they still looked like mine.
Were you happy with them?

Ah---No. I mean it wasnít their fault. I just got the percentage and didnít know the people. It was a good thing and I could see how it would be very exciting to do that with a catalog because a lot of people are out of Baltimore now that write or call and say please send me something (say) for my wife, she likes this, this and this. We do a lot of business that way. They know my work well enough that I can just send them a rough drawing and it works pretty well.

Your work has been described as "precision work done in freehand". How do you keep your work fresh and spontaneous after all these years?
It is. I mean some of the things are so simple and they have to be finished right and they have to be the right proportions and theyíre usually a little off. I mean Iím not symmetrical Iím usually off beat.

Thatís the art.

Thatís the freehand part.

You use a lot of drawing in your work

silver brooch

I do a lot of drawing. I like to. Itís spontaneous where as metal work is not spontaneous. It has to look spontaneous. I guess I draw a lot for myself because you just start drawing and, you know, one little dot starts the whole process going and you end up with 50 things and then you have to edit it to one that you make. But often it goes on and on and on and a lot of those things Iíll never get to make, but Iím glad that at least I drew them because theyíre complete in my mind and I know exactly what they will look like-- but Iíll never have time to make them all.


What sort of adaptations have you made to your designs to suit different periods of time and fashion? Did you enjoy the challenge of designing jewelry to wear with the clothes of Geoffrey Bean in the 1970s and would you like to do that again?
Yes, I did enjoy it because I respect his skills and art form. I think heís a terrific designer so I did enjoy that because he liked what I did. If he hadnít liked what I did it wouldnít have worked. He actually wanted me to design jewelry for him, but it would have been under his name and I didnít want to do that so that was an opportunity that may or may not have worked And that was fun because it was for the fashion shows. They had to be bold pieces so I went to glass shops and rock shops and got big chunks of pieces that would show on the runway. So it was a very different thing.

silver, rough quartz necklace


So because he was an artist himself, you felt it was ok to design for him?
Well, I didnít design for him---he used my jewelry for his fashion shows.
So you didnít design specifically for pieces of clothes he made?

Well, I did, but he would show me the drawings and I would do something long or short or down the back, whatever it would be, but it wasnít a production thing he did anything with. They were individual pieces. I did a whole series of belts too, which looked just like the jewelry.
I think the enumeration pieces are  fascinating. Do you enjoy designing for individuals and occasions?

 


Oh very much so because there are very wonderful people who come to me.

                    gold, rutilated quartz necklace

Is it an interesting  challenge to start with an idea like that?

Well, you start and then you know the people. You usually know the recipient. Iím doing something now. A doctorís wife has three occasions, May 10, June 1, and June 24 and all three pieces will go together, all will either all be precious stones, or right now this year itís gold and ebony and they all are related in some way and itís fascinating.

I think itís exciting that you do that for individuals. They must be so pleased.
Oh they say Iím so glad you are here for Christmas!
What do you think was the most challenging commission that youíve ever had?

Well I guess the longest was for Jim Rouse, which lasted 20 years.

silver, wood, gold pin/pendant

What was that?

Heís the gentleman (for whom) I did the anniversary and birthday (pieces). So it started with a little one--a little 10 dollar silver one. Which is very nice and you would recognize it as mine. And then it started with her initials like a forged "R" and it went on for 20 years. Thatís 40 pieces and each one had a symbol in it or something that was important to the occasion. It wasnít obvious. You couldnít look and say, "Oh well you are 65 years old today", but the 65 would be in there someplace. And every year twice a year weíd talk over the phone and exchange ideas like maybe she needs a necklace, or something short or something long, or maybe something colorful.
Was that your favorite also?

I donít have a favorite. I did a lot of things for Howard Head for his wife and in this many years there have been a lot of very serious collectors.

When did you start making pieces that changeóthe metamorphosis part of your jewelry?

 

Itís part of me. Itís an obvious evolution. I did a lot of things way back in the 60s that flip over so you have an ebony side and a silver side or a gold side and a silver side. I like things that the customer can do things with. Some customers donít like that and some do. Some of them have said, Ď solder it all together, Iím not good at moving it." But some people enjoy that.
Perhaps youíd have to be more confident to move it. Some of them probably think that what you do is perfect and they donít want to somehow make the piece imperfect.

Yes, there are all kinds of people.

               silver, wood brooch

How limiting to your art is the function jewelry must have as opposed to sculpture, which does not necessarily need to be functional?

I donít think itís limiting because Iíve been doing it so long. Iím surely aware of the European jewelry, which is pretty far out as far as wearing and I like that. Iíve done a few pieces which are like that, but we donít have a clientele for that whereas Iíve done pieces that I  think are nice. Iíll show you one. I guess Iím locked intoóno not lockedóI really care about the people I work for. Iím not making it for myself. Well sure Iím making it for myself, but Iím pretty sure I know whoís going to buy it or whoís going to wear it because Iím not going to wear it all!
Yes, There are contemporary pieces being made which are not wearable.

Which is sculpture and exciting. I have some things like that.

                      silver bracelet


What about catches and pins and fastenings-- have you ever made something and been upset because you had to put a pin on it?
Oh I think thatís a dread! You always have to allow space for it unless you use a pin stem that you make, something like a fibula, which is another approach. It doesnít always work on certain pieces. It should be concealed or be obvious like a fibula.

So it should be one or the other--very obvious or not.
Thatís all it can be, I mean a safety pin is a wonderful thing and Iíve done variations of safety pins.

What is the difference between a piece signed with a stamped mark and one signed with an etched mark?
Sometimes I forget to stamp it! They were always done both ways. Sometimes I forget to stamp it and then to stamp it we would have to sand it and re-polish and then stamp again. And some things were constructed in a way there was no way to get the stamp in after it was made so I have to scribe it. But as far as age, there is no difference. If I had known this, I would have put years on everything. That would have been helpful, but I wasnít thinking of anything like that.
Does it bother you when someone assigns more value to an older piece than a newer piece?

No, thatís ok. Itís a little bit awkward because everything should be stamped. 

                        silver bracelet

 Has anyone every forged your pieces?
Not that I know of.  There are people who copy my work and I feel that is disgusting.

How much time do you have to make jewelry now?
I do have a few people that help me. I donít set diamonds .I have a diamond setter.
I suppose you started working with silver because it was less expensive than gold.

I started with brass and copper.

            silver, brass brooch

Do you use gold mostly because you can afford it now or do you like to use it?

Oh I like it. Itís beautiful and I think itís wonderful with silver. I like the combination and we can offer things that are a good price because it has silver backs, etc. I like the different colors. I used to do the Mexican technique of married metals, the gold and silver though it used to be brass and copper and it was subtle and wonderful, but itís expensive to do now.

                gold, tourmaline brooch

Your designs are timeless, however, do you feel you are a better designer now than when you started?

Oh I think I have much broader scope, sure, and Iíve done things with precious stones that I certainly didnít do in the beginning. But it is interesting to have young people come in, really young, for their engagement rings or something and theyíll sayó"Oh, this is so modern!" They are modern. Itís from that era but itís also interesting. Iím up in age you know. People come in and say, " I want something for my mother. Do you think sheís too old for this?" And I say, "I donít think soóit depends on her spirit. If sheís maybe 110 she still might like it!" I have some pretty aged customers that are just wonderful. They dress well, collect sculpture, paintings, jewelry. They are wonderful people!
You look wonderful in your jewelry.

Thank you. Thatís all I wear.

                     gold, pearl brooch

Have you had a design that didnít work, that you thought was great but it just didnít work on someoneís body or fell apart?
 
It doesnít get to the point. If it doesnít look good it doesnít get there. I stop it! I would never polish it--go to all that trouble. Some things have fallen apart because you come up with different kinds of hooks and hinges and catches and things but we usually try them out first.
Have you ever grown tired of making jewelry, decided that you werenít inspired and wanted to quit?

Not really, but I could do other things. I still could do some sculpture. I used to paint. I did andirons. I did bells that were sold at the Museum of Modern Art. All kinds of interesting things. And Georg Jensen had them. And it was nice the year I sold through the Museum of Modern Art. That was a very nice thing because it was in the catalog. That was interesting.

Was it hard to get into those places? Did they approach you?
No, I approached them. I just walked in.
Was that Jensen USA in New York?

gold, rutilated quartz rings


New York yes, I had things at Bergdorfs, at Tiffanys, lots of places, mainly Design Research which was a very wonderful store back in the 50s, 60s, 70s  because I had to like the store. I wouldnít put it any place I didnít like. Thatís maybe the part about Stieff that I didnít know where it was all the time. Thatís kind of picky, but I wanted to know where it was and how it was displayed and if it was cared for. We have a store and I have a great respect for everything that we have, especially if itís made by hand.
Were there any well-known sculptor-jewelers that influenced you during the 1940s when you were starting out?

I know who I respected, but I donít know how they would influence me. I donít know where that comes from, what you do. Itís just your inner expression and obviously you relate to people who do things that are related to you. Like I like Eames chairs with the wire legs and all that because I like wire and I like the forms that he would come up with. I thought a lot of Harry Bertoia. But, I donít know that it influenced me. Margaret De Patta I thought was quite good and she was.
She was good. I think of all the modernist jewelers she was the most like you because her pieces were always finished. The designs were more architectural, more mathematical than say Sam Kramer.

Thatís what I call organic. I could never figure him out. I told him that one time.

                     silver, gold brooch

You did?

Well, I used to go up to the village and ask him: "What do you do that for? Thatís awful! It doesnít have any design. It doesnít relate. But anyway he had a place.

So you knew Sam Kramer?
Well, I talked to him. He was certainly a strong influence on a lot of people.
Yes, he was seminal. Were any of the other people personal friends of yours like Steig or Margaret De Patta--Wiener?

Not really. I met Margaret De Patta because that was on my Western camping trip.

                   silver, onyx, gold ring

Really?

I stopped in to talk to her. It was fun. We were in camping clothes and an old Ford car and went in.
Was that in San Francisco?

Yes.  There was a thing in California called the Farmerís Market. Have you ever heard of the Farmerís Market?

 

No

There is a fellow (canít think of his name) he had a jewelry booth and he had good people
Margaret De Patta sold there?

I donít know that she did but she may have. It was very casual but it was neat and orderly and he gave everyone a space. But also out there was this store Frasers and they were up in Seattle and were mainly into furniture and fabric.
How has your husband (Bill Steinmetz) influenced your work?

silver, wood, gold pin/pendant & neck ring


Oh I think we sort of go in our own keels. Heís a designer also. Entirely different, He taught design also at the Institute for 22 years. We each did. He has very good taste. We both pick (for) the store and we both work with architects, but he wouldnít say do this or do that, but I never ask unless itís for someone special and instead of one thing I have eight things and Iím trying to figure out which one to pick, like I have eight designs for someone and I say, "You pick." Itís very difficult so often Iíll ask different people, just for kicks, pick one. Sometimes you pay attention to it sometimes not. You sort of have to go in and think it all out you know (what she will like) because itís usually for an important occasion. Of course, now I have a lot of jewelry thatís handed down. But itís nice to have the granddaughter come in and say, "you know, I got this from my grandmother and itís so modern!"

Who do you miss the most of the friends, teachers, customers that have gone before you?
Oh, I miss a lot of customers, yes.

 


Is the man that you designed all those pieces for 20 years still living?

silver, rock crystal quartz necklace

No he died. Thatís Jim Rouse he was a very prominent developer, in fact he developed all this. The city of Columbia, Harbor Place. And there was Howard Head (Head skis). He was wonderful because he was very opinionated and a designer and he would come in and say, " I want this" and I would say, "well I will only do it this way", and he would say, "no, do it this way", and I would say, " I am going to do it this way!" So weíd go back and forth. I donít know whether he was playing with me or I was playing with him.
Is his wife still living?

His wife is still living and she has a big collection. She lives in Vail and keeps coming back
That would be an amazing exhibit of all that jewelry. 
She was a very big part of the show at the Maryland Institute of Art. See, I didnít realize all those years went by. You know, all of a sudden you are doing Vintage Jewelry!
What new directions is your work taking at present and what new projects are you working on now?

 

 

I hope by fall I will have a big collection that no oneís ever seen before because itís getting to the point that it would be nice to isolate it and have entirely new, different approaches. Itís still going to be recognizable because you canít get away from thatóbut maybe some more dimensional pieces. I have something in mind. I should have an opening. And then I still have all the old pieces that somehow, someday Iíll sell. Someday Iíll have a vintage show. So I hope for the fall that Iíll be able to do that.

Thatís exciting! Is there anything specific that you will like to do in the future?
I would like to do sculpture.
Large pieces?

        

           silver ring


They would be large. Now whether Iíd have them fabricated in a shop Iím not sure. I have a lot of pieces that are very sculptural, that could be reproduced on a different scale. Itís hard to define sculpture. Sculpture is dimensional but so is jewelry. I would put design in there also because a lot of sculpture is like Art Smith and a lot of itís like Harry Bertoia. So you have all these in-betweens. Or Noguchi. I think Noguchi has been an influence on everyone, his simplicity and appreciation of nature and all those good things.

I think of you with your pebbles, etc. Thatís a Japanese aesthetic.
But I had that beforeóI grew up with that because I worked with wood and vines and all kinds of things.

I could see the circle ring you have on as  sculpture with water falling down one side.



gold ring


Oh yes, that would be wonderful! One year I was sort of involved with the American Crafts Council and they wanted me to do an exhibition so I thought I would do something with just circles, everything would be circles, but you could spend years on just that, the variety .I mean slicing them, wedging them, twisting them-- all the great things you could do with circles. Excuse me for looking around but I always keep my eyes on people. I mean a dog barks at a cow. You know itís sweet!

 


Life is like art isnít it.

Yes thereís a lot here.
Even chairs, gardens, itís all sculpture.

gold, silver ring


You get obsessed with it, like I will come out here and rearrange the chairs because the tables arenít arranged properly. Itís true; you see things like this. This is a very handsome fly that they put up over this court and the chairs should be placed in a way that allows communication--also great design.

If your house looks good and your clothes look good then your jewelry should all tie in with it.

Mainly the reason we have a store is that we thought it would be interesting to have a little store that we could come in a couple days a week and when we first started it was very sparse and had all the fine design that we could find on the market like Iittala glass, Marimekko clothes, and the jewelry. That gave me a reason to make the jewelry and to meet the customers and itís been wonderful and personal.

 See, I like the people.

 

 

1Frasers was a store in San Francisco that sold contemporary crafts including modern jewelry during the 1950s.

2
.Betty Cooke won the De Beers diamonds Today Award in 1979 and 1981

Marbeth Schon is the owner of M. Schon Modern at www.mschon.com.
   She is Co-moderator of SilverForum and Co-editor of MODERN SILVER magazine
 email: mschonmodern@gmail.com

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.Photographs by Patrick Kapty & Marbeth Schon
Photographs courtesy of Jill Crawford
web design by Marbeth Schon

 Copyright ©  Modern Silver magazine 2001
    
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