Margaret De Patta

(1903-1964)

About The Artist

California native Margaret De Patta De pioneered an intellectual form of jewelry that monumentally set the course for the integration of modern design into personal objects of the everyday. After training as a sculptor and painter at the California School of Fine Arts, De Patta began studying at the New York Arts Students League. It was there that the young artist was first immersed in the brand of Modernism which flourished in the 1920s New York art scene. It wasn't until 1929 however, after having returned to San Francisco, that De Patta took to the jewelry medium that would inevitably distinguish her career. After futilely searching for a wedding ring that would satisfy her freshly formed Modernist aesthetic, De Patta resolved to design and forge her own piece. To acquire the necessary metalsmithing skills for the job, De Patta took on an apprenticeship with San Francisco jeweler, Armin Harenian at the Art Copper Shop. Over the course of this intense training, De Patta began identifying the pillars of fine art, such as light, tension, and organic structure, within her metal craft. De Patta increasingly approached her works as sculptures bearing complex compositions, "scaled to a wearable size." This method placed her on the forefront of the infant Wearable Art Movement. In 1939, De Patta entered into a creative partnership Francis Sperisen, in which she worked to develop the "opticut." The new stone-cutting method manipulated principles of light transmission to create unique and dramatic prism patterns that reacted to the wearer's movement. In the summer of 1940, De Patta went on to enroll in a course taught by the Bauhaus master-artist, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, at Mills College. Later that year, De Patta sought to extend her formal training under Moholy-Nagy and moved to Chicago to attend the School of Design. During this "critical year of study," De Patta perfected her signature ‘floating' stone composition. The designer's affinity for materials such as stainless steel, beach stone, and others typically disregard by purveyors of fine-jewelry, allowed her to rigorously interpret the basic tenets of architectural design.

Once again in San Francisco, De Patta launched the Designs Contemporary jewelry line in 1946, with her second husband, Eugene Bielawski. While intermittently creating custom pieces for some clients, De Patta devoted most of her energy to her catalog collection which started off with eight reproducible pieces. Up until 1957, De Patta sold items from her catalog, at small retailers and farmers markets throughout California. At the same time, De Patta taught various courses at art and design schools around the Bay Area. In 1946, De Patta's jewelry was prominently featured alongside the works of Alexander Calder and Jacques Lipchitz in MoMA's exhibition, Modern Handmade Jewelry. This show was the first of its kind to acknowledge "wearable art as a movement in America." De Patta was also later included in a series of exhibits, beginning in 1948, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, that celebrated the small group of "artist jewelers" who were bringing the craft "into the realm of art" in the postwar period.

Works Cited:

  • Ilse-Neuman, Ursula, et al. Space, Light, Structure: the Jewelry of Margaret De Patta. Museum of Arts and Design, 2012.
  • Lauria, Jo. "Margaret De Patta: Pioneer of Modern Studio Jewelry." Ornament, vol. 35, no. 5, 2012, pp. 34-39,6-7.
  • Moses, Monica. "Groundbreaking Jeweler: Margaret De Patta." American Craft Council, 2012, craftcouncil.org/post/groundbreaking-jeweler-margaret-de-patta.

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