Fashion Facets

ART NOUVEAU’S DEFINING ARTIST

A magnificent collection of some 230 original designs by master artist René Lalique is on display at New York’s Cooper Hewitt Museum through April 12. His work captures the heart of the Belle Epoque period, from 1889 to 1909; his name became closely associated with the Art Nouveau style.

Lalique was born in 1860 and began his career at age 16 when he was apprenticed to a jeweler. After two years, the young man went to London, where he attended art college and was influenced by William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement.

Upon his return to France, Lalique studied sculpture and worked as a designer of jewelry, fabrics and wallpaper. He also worked as an independent designer for top Parisian jewelers, including Cartier and Boucheron. His real break came from his association with actress Sarah Bernhardt, who wore his designs onstage as well as in her high-profile life. Among the jewelry he created for The Divine Sarah were dramatic designs of butterflies and serpents with curling tendrils of gold and gemstones.

In 1900, Lalique showed his original designs at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, where he caused a sensation with his elaborate display. While other jewelers showed their designs on black velvet, Lalique opted for a dramatic tableau of white gauze held by butterfly wings on women’s torsos and crowned by six black bats. A wrought grille from this display is one of the centerpieces of the current exhibition.

Lalique approached jewelry design differently than other jewelers. The style of the time was to set rare and costly stones in unobtrusive settings, thus underscoring their rarity and value. Influenced by the art of Japan and the alluring female body, Lalique combined such elements as opal, moonstones, jade, carnelian, ivory and colored glass with diamonds, rubies and gold.

Although the artist eventually tired of jewelry and devoted his later years to creating glass, lighting fixtures, vases and tableware, his work produced a lasting legacy to the world of jewelry design.

This exhibition focuses on two decades of the designer’s work, during which he was instrumental in harnessing the energy of the Art Nouveau movement into wearable art. Curated by Yvonne Brunhammer, former director of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, the exhibition is sponsored by Lalique North America and encompasses 120 pieces of jewelry, 50 drawings for jewelry, 40 works in glass and numerous decorative objects. After closing in New York, it moves to the Smithsonian International Gallery in Washington, D.C. (May 15-Aug. 15) and the Dallas Museum of Art (Sept. 13-Jan. 10, 1999).

The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, is the nation’s only museum exclusively devoted to historical and contemporary design. Its extensive collections of drawings, prints, textiles, wall coverings and decorative objects have been gathered from all over the world. Currently celebrating its centennial, this unique museum is located at 2 E. 91 St., New York, NY 10128; (212) 860-6868.

COLOR WARS

Each season, members of the jewelry industry eye fashion colors to ensure that jewelry designs and selections will complement the clothes and the current mood of consumers.

But did you ever wonder who really decides that acid green, steely gray or iced lavender will be the “in” color, thereby determining whether you should stock up on peridot, amethyst or diamond pavé? Or did you wonder how every apparel designer seems to feature that “in” color when, presumably, new collections stay under wraps until show day?

Are the gods of style tapped into some kind of rainbow-hued zeitgeist we mortals just can’t feel? Do they have secret midnight meetings in the woods? Or is there really a powerful, unseen force telling us what’s to dye for?

Color trends are established two or more years before they actually become clothes, bedsheets or anything else. It all starts when various people around the world who work in textile development come together to predict the color trends for several seasons hence.

Predict? Or dictate? Do these people truly forecast, or are they unseen arbiters of taste? Hotline, a British magazine, found the process involves a bit of both. When some forecasters meet, they generally bring along a show-and-tell exhibit of things they find inspiring at the moment – from bits of fabric to magazine pages and candy wrappers. As in any gathering of like-minded people, similar inspirations and ideas crop up and a consensus is built. Yet if someone with good persuasive skills really likes acid green or electric orange, chances are he will convert the unconvinced.

Next, these small forecast groups gather with other small forecast groups and the process is repeated. If that acid green lover is part of the process, it’s a good bet that acid green will be one of the forecast colors presented at the big international textile fairs. Major international fabric-producing companies and big commercial designers, afraid to make costly mistakes by choosing the wrong color, heed the forecasters’ advice.

And that’s how we get a lime green spring or a steely gray fall.

MOBELL’S ODE TO MEDICINE

You won’t find this stethoscope in any medical supply catalog, even though it’s perfectly functional. Perhaps because the $150,000 price tag might make even top surgeons wince?

Following his lifelong penchant for turning everyday objects into jeweled art, San Francisco jeweler Sidney Mobell has unveiled his latest creation: this jeweled stethoscope in platinum and diamonds. Mobell’s previous whimsies have included a bejeweled slot machine, gold domino and Monopoly sets, a million-dollar chess set, a diamond hourglass and, for those who like to sit on their wealth, a jeweled toilet seat!

Mobell, who ran two self-named stores in San Francisco before retiring a few years ago, can always be counted on to create some new fantasy to amuse and delight his fans. This latest design was commissioned by 3M™ Corp.’s Littman™ Health Care Products Division. It is currently on display, along with many other Mobell creations, at Shreve & Co., Post St., San Francisco.

We do wonder, though. For $150,000, does it come with a little heater so you don’t cringe when the doctor puts it on your chest?

Chinese-born jewelry designer Peter Wong, like many other jewelry designers, finds architecture an inspiration for design. Unlike others, though, his degree actually is in that discipline, and he worked as an architect for 10 years before becoming a jeweler.

His work, as designer for the Italian-based Cento Group, embodies a sense of clean, airy structure.

“Jewelry has form, shape, proportion and order. I don’t sketch or render. I think about the techniques of construction. I think about how the jewelry is going to be on the body, I don’t think of it as a design apart from form. If it doesn’t make a woman look better and feel comfortable, it’s lousy jewelry.”

But Wong’s work isn’t all high-tech edges; in fact, it’s very soft and fluid. He refuses to “put aside naturalness to suit technology,” and equally refuses to ignore practical matters of technology just to suit an aesthetic requirement. Above all, he says, jewelry has to be designed to be worn with comfort.

Though Italian and Chinese food may not necessarily go together, Wong says his Chinese ancestry and living in Italy have both helped shape his aesthetic sensibilities. Both cultures, he says, have a great respect for simple elegance in art. Italian design embodies a sense of clean form, while the 13th century S’ung Dynasty design is close to being minimalist.

His own work could be described as minimalist, but not in the tiny little context the word has come to mean.

“Things don’t have to be small to be minimalist. Even a large-scale piece can be light looking, if it has rhythm and moves with the body. Light lines can be strong lines.”

The Cento Group, Via del Poggetto, 45, Pieve a Maiano, 52020 Pratantico, (AR), Italy. Fax, 39-575-414-300; e-mail, cento@ats.it

His training as a sculptor, influenced by a love for precious metals, carried Spanish-born designer Ramon Niño from his native Toledo through the Jet Set watering holes of Ibiza and Costa del Sol straight to New York’s East Village. There he can be found perfecting his signature look of granulation through lost-wax casting.

After completing his education at Madrid’s School of Fine Arts and Arts Professions, Niño gained experience through art workshops and association with master jewelers. After working and studying with Andres Torres in Costa del Sol and teaching a jewelry workshop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the young designer moved himself and his business to New York. In 1981, he opened a small workshop/store on East Ninth St., where he began to develop his own line of designs, mostly in silver and set with colored gemstones.

While his work has undergone changes over the past 17 years, Niño’s attitude remains the same: he creates wearable art, aimed at sophisticated collectors. His jewelry is sold in prestigious galleries in New York, Canada and Spain, as well as to a number of private clients.

His technique is unusual, marrying the labor-intensive art of granulation with the mass-production of lost-wax casting. Ramon first makes a piece by applying heat to a silver base to attach granules in the desired pattern. When this piece is completed, he makes a mold from it and casts additional pieces.

His wife and partner, Miryam Yataco, explains that a typical design goes through many steps. It takes a great deal of hand finishing and polishing to achieve the perfectly textured nature of hand granulation.

The result is a collection of bombé earrings in silver and gold, centered by cabochon-cut colored gemstones. Rings, bracelets and necklaces are dotted with brightly polished granules and offset by a surface of matte or oxidized metal. This technique gives them a highly tactile appeal. The designer characterizes his jewelry as having a “discreet texture,” achieved through a careful blending of polished and matte treatments.

The collection, which includes a range of items in silver, 18k gold, diamonds and gemstones, begins around $300 retail. It can reach several thousand dollars, depending upon gemstones and metal type. Niño currently is adding a small collection of platinum pieces.

Ramon Niño, L’Atelier Jewelry Design Workshop, 89 E. Second St., New York, NY 10009; (212) 677-4983.