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The First Major Retrospective on Margaret de Patta, a Seminal Figure in the Studio Jewelry Movement, Opens at MAD in June

Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret de Patta will Explore How the Bauhaus Inflenced this Pioneering Artist's Work

New York, NY (February 10, 2012)

Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta is the first major retrospective of this seminal figure in the American studio jewelry movement. The exhibition, which makes its debut at the Oakland Museum of California this February, is a comprehensive overview of her oeuvre offering new scholarship on how this American Modernist influenced studio jewelry as both maker and social activist. Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta will feature 50 jewelry pieces as well as ceramics, flatware, photographs, photograms, and newly released archival material. In addition, the exhibition will display Constructivist pieces by such renowned European modernists as László Moholy-Nagy, György Kepes, and El Lissitzky, whose work shaped De Patta’s aesthetic sensibilities and vision. It will be on view at the Museum of Arts and Design from June 5 through September 23, 2012.

The partnership of the Museum of Arts and Design and the Oakland Museum of California on this thought-provoking tribute is particularly appropriate, as each institution played a significant role in the development of De Patta’s career, and each has been dedicated to celebrating her achievements with important works by the artist in their collections.

“Margaret De Patta’s bold, yet meticulously conceived brooches, pendants, and rings signaled a radical departure from prevailing moribund designs and practices. Through extraordinary technical innovations she aligned her jewelry with modernist design aesthetics to create an art reflective of her time,” says Ursula Ilse-Neuman, MAD’s Curator of Jewelry. “Her cerebral jewelry expresses her own evolving aesthetic and social philosophy as it unfolded over four decades of enormous change in American society.”

“Margaret De Patta’s jewelry is a stunning example of how a California pioneer influenced significant changes in the art of jewelry making,” says Julie Muñiz, OMCA’s Associate Curator of Design & Decorative Arts.


Born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1903, Margaret De Patta (née Strong) was raised in San Diego, California, where she studied painting and sculpture for two years at the local art academy, before moving to San Francisco to attend the California School of Fine Arts. In 1926, she won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Arts Students League in New York, where she was exposed to the work of the European avant-garde. Upon her return to San Francisco two years later to marry, she became interested in jewelry making when she could not find a wedding band that suited her modernist taste. Always self-directed, she taught herself the craft. In the years that followed, she found exploring space in three-dimensions to be more compelling than two, and so gave up painting to devote herself entirely to jewelry making. For De Patta, jewelry design shared many of the same concerns as modern architecture and sculpture, as they were both involved with “space, form, tension, organic structure, scale, texture, interpenetration, superimposition, and economy of means.”

Eager to expand her understanding of modernist theories, as well as to learn new techniques and to explore novel materials, in 1941, she traveled to Chicago to study at the School of Design with its founding director László Moholy-Nagy. She had first met the Hungarian artist the previous summer when he and his Chicago faculty taught at Oakland’s Mills College. A former member of the German Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy was renowned as a teacher and an innovator in the fields of photography and Constructivist sculpture. Keen to emulate the Hungarian artist’s concept of “vision in motion” in her jewelry, De Patta invented ingenious “opticuts” in which the facets of rutilated quartz act as transparent windows allowing light to penetrate the stone and reveal its internal structure. She also came to include kinetic elements in her jewelry and emphasized the structure of her pieces by reversing positive and negative design elements.

Although she only spent a year in Chicago, it completely transformed her life. She divorced Samuel De Patta, and a few years later married the industrial designer and educator Eugene Bielawski, whom she had met at the School of Design. Together they sought to promote the Bauhaus design philosophy and its democratic social agenda in the Bay Area through a host of creative endeavors, including a production line of affordable modernist jewelry and several educational ventures.

Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta has been organized by the Museum of Arts and Design and the Oakland Museum of California, and was curated by Ursula Ilse-Neuman, MAD’s Curator of Jewelry and Julie Muñiz, OMCA’s Associate Curator of Design & Decorative Arts. The exhibition has been supported by a cadre of enthusiastic, generous, and committed funding partners. Chief among these is the Terra Foundation for American Art, which through its support of Space-Light-Structure—its first involvement with the field of modern jewelry—has demonstrated its commitment to furthering cross-cultural dialogue on American art, and to fostering exploration, understanding, and enjoyment of the visual arts of the United States for national and international audiences. Other funding partners include the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design at the University of North Carolina.


Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta will be accompanied by a 248-page catalogue, which includes a foreword by Holly Hotchner and essays by Ursula Ilse-Neuman, Julie Muñiz, and Glenn Adamson. It has been co-published by MAD and OMCA with support of the Rotasa Foundation.


The Museum of Arts and Design explores the blur zone that characterizes so much of art, design, and craft today. The Museum focuses on contemporary creativity and the ways in which artists and designers from around the world transform materials through processes ranging from the artisanal to the digital. The Museum’s exhibition program explores and illuminates issues and ideas, highlights creativity and craftsmanship, and celebrates the limitless potential of materials and techniques when used by gifted and innovative artists. MAD’s permanent collection is global in scope and focuses on art, craft, and design from 1950 to the present day. At the center of the Museum’s mission is education. Its facility features classrooms and studios for seminars and workshops for students, families, and adults. Three open artist studios engage visitors in the creative processes of artists at work and enhance the exhibition programs. Lectures, films, performances, and symposia related to the Museum’s collection and topical subjects affecting the world of contemporary art, craft, and design are held in a renovated 144-seat auditorium.


The Oakland Museum of California brings together collections of art, history and natural science under one roof to tell the extraordinary stories of California and its people. OMCA’s groundbreaking exhibits tell the many stories that comprise California with many voices, often drawing on first-person accounts by people who have shaped California’s cultural heritage. Visitors are invited to actively participate in the Museum as they learn about the natural, artistic and social forces that affect the state and investigate their own role in both its history and its future. With more than 1.8 million objects, OMCA is a leading cultural institution of the Bay Area and a resource for the research and understanding of California’s dynamic cultural and environmental heritage.


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