Margaret De Patta (1903–1964) followed a circuitous path to becoming one of the 20th century’s seminal figures in jewelry design. She was trained as a painter in her native California, only turning her focus to jewelry after she made her own modernist wedding band in 1929. A few years later, while tinkering with the lively forms that would become her hallmark, De Patta studied under the Hungarian-born constructivist László Moholy-Nagy during a yearlong sojourn at the New Bauhaus (now the Institute of Design) in Chicago. Channeling the school’s principles of art and industry, she helped to redefine jewelry for a design-cognizant audience. The resulting pieces were both carefully crafted and inexpensive, dynamic objects that reflected light, framed space, and moved with kinetic energy.
Ursula Ilse-Neuman, curator of jewelry for the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York, learned about De Patta ten years after she organized a show for MAD on the German Bauhaus. Following her research on the Chicago Bauhaus school, Ilse-Neuman hit upon Moholy-Nagy’s protégée’s “bold, yet meticulously conceived” jewelry, which was overshadowed by the period’s more celebrated furniture and textiles. And though De Patta is revered in the field of jewelry design, the public hasn’t had much opportunity to see her sculptural forms in person, save for an exhibition put on by the Oakland Museum of California in the 1970s. In Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta, on view at MAD until September 23, the designer’s unusual yet wearable application of light and space is ever-present.