Modernist Art


In the 1940s, American jewellery design moved in two directions. Bold and literal representations of animals and flowers emerged in brooch form, constructed from vivid enamels and glitzy metals, and statement making, rhinestone encrusted creations known as ‘Cocktail’ jewels were coveted by many and promoted by glamorous Hollywood stars. These showy pieces represented a post-war need for extravagance. However, there were a number of jewellery designers who rebelled against this frivolity and excess in adornment. They were Modernists. Their hand-crafting and small scale production provided an alternative design movement for those whose ideology didn’t align itself with commercialism. Their abstract designs were perfect for a consumer who wanted to look forward, not back.

In her book Vintage Jewellery, Caroline Cox refers to American mod jewels as ‘Bijoux Beatnik’. One of the most influential and interesting designers producing for the Beatnik generation was Art Smith. Smith created jewellery from the 1940s into the 1970s. He produced dramatic, sinuous pieces predominantly in copper, brass and silver. Indeed, like the designers of the Arts & Crafts movement of the early 20th century, modernist jewellers turned away from precious materials in favour of the more affordable and humble.

Art Smith was heavily influenced by the kinetic sculptures of Alexander Calder. This can be seen in his drop earring designs, which explore the movement of forms and shapes when connected with the human body. Smith championed asymmetry in his work. His necklaces particularly show this design technique – torc style rings of metal are detailed with bold pendants, or panels on opposing sides. They’re engineered to wrap comfortably around the wearer and, yet, simultaneously created to look structural and imposing.

Read more about the fascinating Art Smith in Issue 40...

(with thanks to Brooklyn Museum for the images)

Woo Gilchrist