Margaret De Patta was an artistic visionary, creating some of the most innovative and futuristic jewelry in the mid century era. She was born as Margaret Strong in Tacoma, Washington in 1903, and grew up in San Diego, California. An artist her entire life, she heavily identified with the Constructivist, Bauhaus, and Democratic movements, and it was through a lifetime of design that her expertise in jewelry and construction flourished, until her untimely death in 1964.
De Patta studied painting as a teenager in the 1920’s, in both San Francisco and New York. Her first marriage to Sam De Patta in 1929, a San Francisco department store executive, was the impetus to her first jewelry piece. Having grown frustrated with the banal, stale jewelry designs of the time she created her own wedding ring after being shown the basics of metalsmithing. As a result she was hooked and decided to give up painting for a career in jewelry design. In the 1930’s, De Patta studied under her muse, László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian- Jewish artist who had fled Nazi Germany and opened the Chicago Bauhaus in 1936. Because of her time spent here, her skills were perfected and her ideas thrived.
Before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, De Patta moved back to California with her first husband. During and after the war, millions of people moved to the West Coast, resulting in an influx of all types of people, including artists, writers, and designers. This created a need for modern, efficient, and affordable housing and lifestyle. Lucky for De Patta’s work, she was a pioneer in this format. It can be said her silhouettes from designs in the 1940’s inspired midcentury modern designers, and much of her aesthetic can be aligned with midcentury architecture.
Growing increasingly restless with her newfound design philosophies, she divorced her first husband, and remodeled her 1908 cottage style home in San Francisco to resemble a "model of modernist architecture.” Most of the work was done by herself, and while at the time this decision was regarded as a bad investment due to the unconventional nature of the house, it later proved to be worthwhile and is now considered a historical marvel in the modernist, Bauhaus movement. It recently sold for $1,799,000.
Later, she married industrial designer Eugene Bielawski with whom she created a ready-to-wear jewelry line, called Designs Contemporary, which later failed due to lack of appeal and sales in the midcentury market.
In general, De Patta was ahead of her time as a huge proponent for all things modern. There are not many sources that discuss her personal life, but we know she sadly ended her own life in 1964. Her work is eternalized, and celebrated for her use of light-play and space, and innovative use of texture, movement, and silhouette. Her preferred materials were white and yellow gold, but more importantly sterling silver. She is known for her use of specially- cut stones, called “opticuts”, often made by lapidary artist Francis Sperisen, and minimal bezels, prongs, and mountings to hold them in place. Her technique of “hiding” the bezel made the stone appear to float, thus showing off the natural beauty of her cabochons and freeform cut gemstones. She is also known to mimic and utilize the inclusions of a stone in her setting to be a part of the art: creating optical illusions called “reflective distortion” in the depth of the stone. Texture, movement, and color are also a huge part of her aesthetic. By combining shiny obsidian, diamonds, or iridescent pearls with patterned opaque or clear and textured stones such as rutilated quartz or malachite, then fastening them to sterling silver that varied in shape, texture, and size, she was able to create a look that appeared to be in motion or floating, concepts that define Bauhaus and modernist theories. She often used swivels and other attachments that actually made the piece move- something that was not seen much at that time. She also collaborated with other artists, like photographer Milton Halberstadt, to create time lapsed photos of her movable pieces to showcase the different positions her pieces could be worn in (see image of the Three Position Pin in Movement below). Today her work sells at auction for upwards of $4,000 a piece and is coveted by collectors and jewelry aficionados alike.
She is quoted, “The choice of a piece of jewelry reveals much of the character and personality and the understandings of the individual. A piece of jewelry well designed should be the embodiment of the trends of our times – these new types of structures, clean line, elimination of decoration, new spatial concepts, new use of transparencies and a fresh appreciation and use of organic form – recognition of the true essence of these things is growing, consciously or unconsciously, in an ever-increasing minority. “
A retrospective of her work was shown in 2012 at the Museum of Arts and Design in San Francisco, California. The book launched at this show, Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret de Patta, can be found on Amazon.com and celebrates the influence this important designer had on not just the jewelry industry, but the collective arts world.