If you’ve got a thing for chunky but understated rings, oversized pendants, or funky pins, you have Margaret De Patta to thank. The Bay Area artist, who modernized the art of jewelry making with her one-of-a-kind creations from the 1930s to the 1960s, is being honored in the exhibition “Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta,” at the Oakland Museum of California.
The new exhibit showcasing her work will run from Saturday, February 4 until May 13. The museum already houses some of De Patta’s work in its permanent collection, and for this exhibition is collaborating with the Museum of Art and Design in New York.
Born Margaret Strong in 1903, De Patta was raised in San Diego and began her career as a painter at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Her love affair with jewelry began with her quest to find an appealing wedding ring. (It was for her third marriage, to Sam De Patta—she was married four times). Nothing on the market suited her—the brilliant, diamond-encrusted style that is the hallmark of American engagement jewelry left her cold. De Patta taught herself the basics of jewelry making, set out to design her own ring, and in the process connected with the art form that would become her central passion.
Bouncing around the country to study art, De Patta landed at the Chicago School of Design in the 1940s and worked under legendary constructivist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Moholoy-Nagy was a former member of the German Bauhaus, a school known for its contribution to modern furniture and architecture by blending simplicity with functionality. This influence shines in De Patta’s work—many of her pins, for instance, are reminiscent of rounded, ultra-modern chaise lounges or chairs.
With Moholy-Nagy’s teachings in mind, De Patta returned to California and developed her signature style, working with precious metals and gemstones like quartz, pearl and onyx. She cut the stones not for brilliance, but to highlight their inherent beauty and inclusions more traditional jewelers might consider “flaws.” Moholy-Nagy advised De Patta to “catch her stones in air”—as a result, many of the gems in her rings and necklaces appear to be floating, or barely attached, to their metal chains or bands. A standard of her engagement and wedding sets is functionality—the two rings are often designed so one slides into the other, making them at once wearable and unique.
Julie Muniz, OMCA’s associate curator of design and decorative arts, hopes this exhibit gives De Patta renewed fame—the artist became more obscure after she committed suicide in 1964. “She’s been so under-recognized for so long, and she had such an influence on modern jewelry,” Muniz said at a preview of the exhibition on Thursday. “We’re really hoping to get her the recognition that she deserves.”
OMCA did an exhibition of De Patta’s work in the 1970s, but Muniz and her colleagues are excited to feature De Patta again in what they feel is one of the museum’s strongest mediums—a single-person retrospective, giving serious treatment to an artist who may not be widely known.
In two large rooms at the back of the museum’s third floor, De Patta’s work is organized by theme and showcased in spare glass cases with meticulous care. In one particularly stunning instance, necklaces, rings and earrings hang from a handmade web of intertwined metal rods. On the walls, photograms—or images made without a camera using light-sensitive paper—sketches, and the occasional photograph of De Patta hang in neat rows. Some of the art is by De Patta’s influences and teachers, like Moholoy-Nagy, and some is by her. Examples of flatware and pottery that De Patta made are also included in the exhibition.
During her career, De Patta made a go at commercializing her work—until that point, her pieces were often one-of-a-kind and extremely pricey. But her line never took off the way she was hoping; at around $50 a piece (the equivalent of a few hundred dollars today), it still may not have been as accessible to the public as she’d hoped.
But as evidenced by this exhibition, she did make her mark on the world of fine art. She also continues to influence modern jewelers. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Velvet da Vinci jewelry and metalwork gallery in San Francisco commissioned sixteen jewelers to create De Patta-esque pieces using uncut gemstone from her estate. They are currently on display at the gallery’s Polk street storefront.