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Fashion 88 : Big-Name Architects Build New Image as Designers of Jewelry


Go on, ask for an Arata Isozaki original.

"But he designs buildings," you say, thinking of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

True, but he does more.

Isozaki is among 21 world-class architects and interior designers who have put their hands to jewelry design and are showing off the results at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles.

The whole group--architects Richard Meier, Stanley Tigerman, Michael Graves and Robert Venturi among them--was commissioned by Italian industrialist Cleto Munari. And whether or not most people would dangle small temples from their ears (Venturi came up with that idea for earrings), this eclectic collection gives insight into the designing mind.

It's not the first time that the maverick Munari has encouraged architects to cross the boundaries of their discipline. He introduced a flatware collection in 1976, calling on some top names in Europe to do it. And later, in 1982, he asked Ettore Sottsass (better known for his Olivetti typewriter designs and for "Memphis," the Milan-based design studio and store he helped found) to make a ring.

Intrigued by the results, Munari extended his request for jewelry to top architects around the world. Three years and more than $1 million later, he lays claim to an international collection of 200 pieces and is lending a large part of it to the museum exhibit.

His originals are not for sale. But he has arranged for limited-edition copies to be made and sold--at prices that range up to $22,000.

"It took months to make a prototype," Alessandro Munari, nephew and business partner of Cleto, says to explain the prices. The originals and the reproductions are made in Vicenza, Italy, by a group of craftsmen retained by the Munaris to work exclusively on the collection.

"We had to educate them to make these new and unusual shapes," Munari says. "Sometimes for one ring, we had to make it 10 times."

New York architect Peter Eisenman's design for a ring is particularly troublesome to construct. It is an intricate, cube-shaped grid inlaid with turquoise, lapis and onyx.

"It was so hard to capture the geometric form," Munari explains.

Mario Bellini, known for his industrial designs, submitted sketches for a ruby-studded gold bar that stretches across three gold finger bands. And Sottsass, who also rejects the idea that a ring should be limited to one part of the hand, designed a ring the width of a hockey puck--a gold disc covered with multicolored abstract shapes.

The show at the Craft and Folk Art Museum offers a visual lesson in the different styles and approaches of the designers.

Michael Graves presents the most "jewelry-like" jewels. He is known for his classical, almost lyrical approach to design, and his necklaces and rings, small and decorated with delicate swirling motifs, look as if they might have come right out of Cleopatra's jewelry box.

"I approached it from the point of view of making jewelry, not from the point of view of mini-architecture," Graves says. "Some of the other designs are wilder, and I don't mean this negatively, but I don't see them on certain types of women. Whereas my designs, like most classical things, are compatible with many styles."

In some works, the architect's muse is as plainly present as she is at the Dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Japanese architect Arata Isozaki's rings and pendants incorporate the shapes of his trade; vaults, cylinders, cubes and pyramids. "My jewels are architectural models," he has said.

Stanley Tigerman, the Chicago-based architect, uses forms that harken back to earlier days; a two-ring set that comes together to form the capital of an ionic column, for example.

Someone wearing a column on the wrist or keystone on the finger might take more notice of a keystone on a building, Tigerman says. In the act of wearing it, the person becomes more familiar with it, he says.

Tackling small-scale objects was not a problem for Tigerman, who, like the other designers, submitted renderings and color elevations for each of their wearable works.

"With jewelry, you can draw things full size; there's a correspondence between the drawing and the object," he comments. "You can't do that with buildings. At least not conveniently."

The exhibit is expected to find an enthusiastic audience in Los Angeles.

"The Munari collection bridges a lot of different areas in art, and the Los Angeles community is interested in that," says Laurie Kalb, curator of the Craft and Folk Art Museum.

Roberta Mathews, a partner in Exhibitions Inc., the Dallas company coordinating the show's American tour, has another thought.

"People in L.A. are open to wilder things and they have expendable income," she says to explain the show's appeal here.

Wearing that Isozaki original may not seem so odd after all.

Photographs are from "Jewelry by Architects" by Barbara Radice, published by Rizzoli.

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