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The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta

The first major retrospective on the work of Margaret de Patta opened at the Museum of Art & Design in New York City on June 23rd, 2012 and runs through September 23, 2012. 


Margaret de Patta, 1960-1964

 Sterling silver, beach stones, pebbles; fabricated

 PHOTO CREDIT: John Bigelow Taylor




The exhibition, which made its debut at the Oakland Museum of California in February, 2012, is a comprehensive overview of her oeuvre offering new scholarship on how this American Modernist influenced studio jewelry as both maker and social activist. Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta will feature 50 jewelry pieces as well as ceramics, flatware, photographs, photograms, and newly released archival material. In addition, the exhibition will display Constructivist pieces by such renowned European modernists as László Moholy-Nagy, György Kepes, and El Lissitzky, whose work shaped De Patta’s aesthetic sensibilities and vision. It will be on view at the Museum of Arts and Design from June 5 through September 23, 2012.

The partnership of the Museum of Arts and Design and the Oakland Museum of California on this thought-provoking tribute is particularly appropriate, as each institution played a significant role in the development of De Patta’s career, and each has been dedicated to celebrating her achievements with important works by the artist in their collections.


Margaret de Patta, 1947-1950
Sterling silver, coral, malachite
 fabricated, patinated

PHOTO CREDIT: John Bigelow Taylor


“Margaret De Patta’s bold, yet meticulously conceived brooches, pendants, and rings signaled a radical departure from prevailing moribund designs and practices. Through extraordinary technical innovations she aligned her jewelry with modernist design aesthetics to create an art reflective of her time,” says Ursula Ilse-Neuman, MAD’s Curator of Jewelry. “Her cerebral jewelry expresses her own evolving aesthetic and social philosophy as it unfolded over four decades of enormous change in American society.”

“Margaret De Patta’s jewelry is a stunning example of how a California pioneer influenced significant changes in the art of jewelry making,” says Julie Muńiz, OMCA’s Associate Curator of Design & Decorative Arts.

Pendant, 1959

Margaret De Patta

White gold, ebony,
 faceted quartz

Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California

Gift of Eugene Bielawski
The Margaret De Patta Memorial Collection

Photo: John Bigelow Taylor

Born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1903, Margaret De Patta (née Strong) was raised in San Diego, California, where she studied painting and sculpture for two years at the local art academy, before moving to San Francisco to attend the California School of Fine Arts. In 1926, she won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Arts Students League in New York, where she was exposed to the work of the European avant-garde. Upon her return to San Francisco two years later to marry, she became interested in jewelry making when she could not find a wedding band that suited her modernist taste. Always self-directed, she taught herself the craft. In the years that followed, she found exploring space in three-dimensions to be more compelling than two, and so gave up painting to devote herself entirely to jewelry making. For De Patta, jewelry design shared many of the same concerns as modern architecture and sculpture, as they were both involved with “space, form, tension, organic structure, scale, texture, interpenetration, superimposition, and economy of means.”

Eager to expand her understanding of modernist theories, as well as to learn new techniques and to explore novel materials, in 1941, she traveled to Chicago to study at the School of Design with its founding director László Moholy-Nagy. She had first met the Hungarian artist the previous summer when he and his Chicago faculty taught at Oakland’s Mills College. A former member of the German Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy was renowned as a teacher and an innovator in the fields of photography and Constructivist sculpture. Keen to emulate the Hungarian artist’s concept of “vision in motion” in her jewelry, De Patta invented ingenious “opticuts” in which the facets of rutilated quartz act as transparent windows allowing light to penetrate the stone and reveal its internal structure. She also came to include kinetic elements in her jewelry and emphasized the structure of her pieces by reversing positive and negative design elements.

Although she only spent a year in Chicago, it completely transformed her life. She divorced Samuel De Patta, and a few years later married the industrial designer and educator Eugene Bielawski, whom she had met at the School of Design. Together they sought to promote the Bauhaus design philosophy and its democratic social agenda in the Bay Area through a host of creative endeavors, including a production line of affordable modernist jewelry and several educational ventures.


Margaret de Patta

Sterling silver, pearl
cast, fabricated

PHOTO CREDIT: John Bigelow Taylor


Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta has been organized by the Museum of Arts and Design and the Oakland Museum of California, and was curated by Ursula Ilse-Neuman, MAD’s Curator of Jewelry and Julie Muńiz, OMCA’s Associate Curator of Design & Decorative Arts. The exhibition has been supported by a cadre of enthusiastic, generous, and committed funding partners. Chief among these is the Terra Foundation for American Art, which through its support of Space-Light-Structure—its first involvement with the field of modern jewelry—has demonstrated its commitment to furthering cross-cultural dialogue on American art, and to fostering exploration, understanding, and enjoyment of the visual arts of the United States for national and international audiences. Other funding partners include the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design at the University of North Carolina.


Margaret de Patta

14k yellow gold, ebony, wire
forged, fabricated
PHOTO CREDIT: John Bigelow Taylor



Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta will be accompanied by a 248-page catalogue, which includes a foreword by Holly Hotchner and essays by Ursula Ilse-Neuman, Julie Muńiz, and Glenn Adamson. It has been co-published by MAD and OMCA with support of the Rotasa Foundation.

Press release, photographs, and photo captions are courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design and the Oakland Museum.  Please see photo credits above.

Web design by Marbeth Schon

© copyright MODERN SILVER magazine, 2012