American jewelry and accessories designer, and artist
Born: New York City, 6 November 1943. Education: Studied at Parsons School of Design, New York University, and the American Craft Institute. Family: Married Elizabeth Anne (CeCe) Eddy in 1974 (divorced); children: Elizabeth. Career: Worked as art director/producer for various advertising agencies, 1966-70; founded company, 1972; divisions include jewelry, belts, handbags (from 1991), gloves, and home furnishings and accessories; opened in-store boutiques at Bergdorf Goodman, New York, 1985, Neiman Marcus, Beverly Hills, 1990, and Mitsukishi, Tokyo, 1990; opened shops in Italy, Germany, and Switzerland; introduced black gold jewelry, 1995; transformed 1920s mansion into residence, 1998; also an artist; director, Council of Fashion Designers of America, 1987. Collections: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Louisiana State Museum. Awards: Hollywood Radio & Television Society award, 1965; two Art Directors Club awards, New York, late 1960s; Illustrators Society of New York award, 1969; Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1979, 1984; Council of Fashion Designers of America award, 1981. Address: 119 West 40th Street, New York, NY 10018, USA. Website: www.kiestelstein-cord.com .
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My life as an artist started when I was about eight. My primary interest at that moment was directed toward North American Indian art. This was my first influence between the ages of 8 and 14. I produced large-scale carvings and effigies and interpretations. Between 14 and 22 my focus had switched to painting and metalwork. At 14 I had also started to bury objects and metal in the ground to observe color and patina changes.
From the earliest moments I can recall fascination with all past cultures and an intense attraction to art and architecture, not surprising, as in their youth my mother had been an illustrator and father an architect. I still hold these fascinations and occasionally some recall slips into my work. I have rarely ever looked at the ornamentation of other artists; my primary influences come from entire cultures and periods.
I am not influenced by fashion, preferring to be an influencer. Some of my most successful collections took three to five years to create the impact needed to make them commercially successful—really my most successful pieces I could not give away until people developed a new appreciation for my directions. Naturally this has produced my greatest reward (influencing direction) as an artist. My intent is to capture the illusive mental image—a single example is if you are riding in a car down a country road at a good speed, and think you see something wonderful. You stop your car and back up…only to find a jumble that your mind saw as a completed image. This is my creative process: to capture the illusive image that was the correlation between the speed, your mind's eye, and what you thought you'd seen; to make it three-dimensional; and to fill space with something new that was not there before this creation.
As to contemporary fashion, the present mode of "anything goes" is quite wonderful. One can live out one's fantasy, bring it out of the closet and, if in good taste, be really very chic. I do like black ties on men and sexy elegant evening gowns on beautiful women. It quickens the pulse.
In his affirmation "I don't make jewelry; I do sculptures for the body," Barry Kieselstein-Cord has described the independence and the ambition of his work. Like Elsa Peretti and other contemporary designers of jewelry, Kieselstein-Cord has sought to define an art that is autonomous from fashion, boldly sculptural in a way that makes a clear distinction from the wondrous but miniaturized repertory of a designer like Miriam Haskell, and historically aware without being subservient to past styles. His scarab minaudiére, for example, is indebted to ancient Egypt, as well as to the art deco Egyptian revival, but with the curtly reduced modernism that characterizes his work.
His landmark—in law as in art, as their copyright was legally upheld from accessories' pirates—belt buckles, the Vaquero, and the Winchester, are both of the Old West but transmitted through art nouveau curvilinear interpretation. It is hard not to call Kieselstein-Cord's work jewelry, even as he avoids the term with "bodywork" or "sculpture," but the feeling is undeniably different from that of most jewelry. The designer argues that it comes from all the sculpture having as its Platonic ideal some large, even monumental form, surpassing its role on the human body.
Kieselstein-Cord has been one of the critical designers who, from the 1970s, has offered a jewelry that aspires to the condition of sculpture, allowing shapes to reclaim their ancient expressive, even spiritual or prophylactic, aspect in allowing jewelry to become something more than trivial adornment. After expressing his admiration for Easter Island statues, Kieselstein-Cord told André Leon Talley, "I also like things which are sophisticated in an innately primitive way. Things that are transformed into a past and present that you can't identify. I like some of Miró's giant sculptures, some by Lipchitz, Noguchi, and Brancusi. The last thing I look at for inspiration is jewelry of any kind or period." Peretti, Robert Lee Morris, and Tina Chow would all probably adhere to the same spiritual striving and monumental desire for jewelry. Kieselstein-Cord had liberated jewelry from being paltry and precious in scale.
Similarly, Kieselstein-Cord disavows fashion as an influence, maintaining that jewelry must hold its separate aesthetic and power. While wife and partner CeCe also produced jewelry for Perry Ellis and was a model and muse for the fashion designer, Kieselstein-Cord's work has never bent to specific demands of fashion. "My accessories are not meant to be fashion," he told Jill Newman from Women's Wear Daily Accessories Magazine in January 1990. "They are designed to augment fashion. Things made of precious metal are meant to last forever and a day." Indeed, many of Kieselstein-Cord's designs have been of such enduring interest they continue to be produced, while some collectors wait for each new sculptural edition in the manner of collecting any other artistic production. In the early 1980s he produced accessories for the home, and later expanded into high-quality handbags.
If Kieselstein-Cord takes his art seriously enough to declare it sculpture and not jewelry, he is nonetheless playful enough to realize diverse properties of materials and to bring some elements of non-Western culture to the vocabulary of jewelry. In 1976, for example, a coiled choker of silk cord was accented with a gold orb; gold was used with tortoise shell hair combs. In the same year, he created a splendidly reeling art nouveau antelope minaudiére, sandblasted onto the gold body to give the feeling of fur. A 1981 duck bandolier was a little Pancho Villa, a little nursery frieze for a fantastic equivocation in jewelry. John Duka declared his spring 1981 belt buckles "postmodern," perhaps the first time that appellation was used for accessories. Bold concha belts, Celtic interlace, and Gauguin-inspired shapes have been featured in his collections.
Kieselstein-Cord began his work in the 1970s, when American alternative culture might have convinced almost any marijuana-smoking hippie of the probity of body sculpture—and he even used cowboys and Indians to prove the point. What Kieselstein-Cord has done is more important and far-reaching: he has convinced all of us of the probity of body sculpture, spiritual and symbolic; he has enlarged the tradition of jewelry, giving it a chunky, palpable integrity; he has declared jewelry sovereign from fashion; and he has given jewelry and related accessories a standard of luxury along with a contemporary vocabulary.
With more than 3,000 pieces of jewelry behind him, Kieselstein-Cord passionately continues in his exploration to extend the limits of design. One of his most recent creations—black gold—expresses his love for historical beauty or the idea that things get better with time. He is, after all, said to be one of the most patient designers; it took the untraditional artist five years to sell his matte gold finish jewelry. "I like the look of objects that have been used," he explains. "There is a sense of humanity, a sense of affection."
Just as Kieselstein-Cord's jewelry goes back to his early school days, so does his passion for interior design. Using modern technology, industrial methods, and a sense of romanticism, the designer transformed a 1920 Manhattan mansion into a residence and showroom. Uninhabited for nearly 40 years, the building has 20-foot-tall ceilings, green oversized radiators, and eclectic paintings reminiscent of 1920 Italian architecture. Kieselstein-Cord's fondness for historic beauty held true in his innovations just as it did with jewelry. The original owners of his mansion told him they would remove certain items if they risked being destroyed in the renovation. They didn't have to worry with Kieselstein-Cord—the older the better.
Furnished with steel-framed black leather armchairs and square glass-and-steel low tables, Kieselstein-Cord's real masterpiece is the bedroom. Proud to describe it as an Out of Africa feeling, with its white linen curtains, tribal rugs, and kilim pillows, Kieselstein-Cord's elements of design can all be found implemented in some way throughout the Manhattan residence. Although Kieselstein-Cord is quick to state, "I've achieved everything I've ever wanted to," his dreams have always been advertising, design, and art. It's been two out of three for the persistent and even aggressive innovator, but Kieselstein-Cord says he's not worried about fulfilling his dream of one day becoming an artist. "I know I'm going to do it," he says matter-of-factly.
updated by Diana Idzelis