Margaret De Patta was a truly California designer. Originally a painter, she studied in San Diego at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and briefly at the Arts Students League in New York. Always self-directed, she taught herself to make jewelry when she couldn’t find a suitably “modernist” wedding band; she eventually gave up painting entirely, preferring design in three dimensions. Like modern architecture and sculpture, for De Patta jewelry design was about “space, form, tension, organic structure, scale, texture, interpenetration, superimposition, and economy of means.”
In 1941, interested in exploring modernist theories, new materials and techniques, De Patta spent a transformative year studying at the School of Design in Chicago under László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy was a former member of the Bauhaus, and his work focused on 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.”
Throughout her life, and in partnership with her second husband industrial designer Eugene Bielawski, De Patta “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.”
Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta is the first major retrospective of this seminal figure in the American studio jewelry movement. The exhibition, which made its debut at the Oakland Museum of California in February, 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 sensibility 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’s bold, yet meticulously conceived broaches, 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 Muñiz, OMCA’s Associate Curator of Design & Decorative Arts.