Once you discover the work of LA jewelry designer Kathleen Whitaker, you will start to see her work everywhere; her signature minimalist dot and dash earrings are the Baader-Meinhofs of the indie design world. Maybe because, as Kathleen explains, they look just as good on a “60-year-old lady who lunches as they do on a newly-pierced fourth-grader.” We visited Kathleen at her home studio and talked with her about TV binges, the fickleness of taste, and the “infallible Dries Van Noten.”
You had a circuitous background that led you to jewelry design. Can you talk more about this?
I studied ceramics and Russian history at Tulane University in New Orleans. After graduating, I got a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before moving to a small PR firm doing public relations for museums and corporate philanthropy. I left the art world completely after that and went into financial services on Wall Street. The American Express office where I worked was destroyed on 9/11 and I was offered the opportunity to transfer to American Express' West Coast offices. I moved here knowing no one. It was a time of so much freedom and anonymity. I enrolled in night classes at Otis College, one of them being jewelry. It was a long route back to the studio. I made jewelry for myself, and what I was wearing people wanted to buy. That was in 2003. I have now been doing it full-time since 2008.
What all is involved in the creation of a pair of your earrings?
I have a home studio. I work there with my amazing assistant, Katharine. I fabricate initial designs of new pieces, typically in a wax mold. After that, I work with a carefully-selected fabricator and a caster downtown who make and finish the items by hand.
How did ceramics come to play a part in your work?
[Whitaker displays her jewelry in thin, sculptural ceramic pieces that she makes and pierces with tiny holes for a creative take on earring presentation]
I studied ceramics at Tulane University's Newcomb College, which has a long, rich tradition of studio pottery. It was a great opportunity to study there; I don't think I quite realized that at the time. We had a visit from Peter Voulkos once where he threw 100 pounds of clay with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Clay is an easy, wonderful medium that I come back to now and then. And there are synergies between clay and metal in that both mediums are used predominantly for three-dimensional design with both sculptural and functional qualities.
What are some dream projects or collaborations?
I recently heard about a project a museum is doing: tapping several artists to design their visitor buttons. Those little buttons the admissions window gives you to wear as evidence you've paid...they're such a throwaway afterthought. It'd be fun to be part of something like that. Elevating a little object—a memento you'd want to keep. A dream collab is Dries Van Noten; infallible as far as I can tell.
One thing that's so great about your work is that it can be worn by anyone.
Absolutely! That is one of the things I love best: that the jewelry lends itself to transcend gender and age. The foil studs look equally good on a dude as they do on a chic 60-year-old lady who lunches as they do on a newly-pierced fourth-grader. I've always sold them per single earring, versus in pairs which enables the wearer to personalize/individualize them. That way they're malleable to the style or the lifestyle of the wearer. And that seems to resonate.
Can you share more about the thought process that inspired your original dot and dash designs?
The idea was to strip things down. Some of the components used in making jewelry—the armature and findings themselves—can be so beautiful. In some ways the escalating gold price drove this too. When I first started making jewelry in 2002, gold was $400 an ounce. And it is now around $1500. As gold went up, instead of moving to a more affordable metal like silver or brass, I kept on using gold. I just made the designs smaller and simpler as to keep them accessible and affordable. I didn't want to compromise on the use of pure gold.
Your jewelry is very minimal, but are you a minimalist?
I'd love to say no. That I am flashy and goppy with a pile-it-on sensibility. While I love, have and can appreciate highly-decorative pieces, at heart, I like things pretty spare. Cluttered life, cluttered mind.
Let's talk about the line between beauty and function. The words "art object" are thrown around all the time, but I'm curious about what that actually means to someone whose work is placed into this category.
I think truly successful design comes when you achieve both beauty and function. If you need a hook, a leash, a wallet, a shoe in your life (last time I checked most of us do) why not make it one that is a quality, hand-made thing of beauty so that you will enjoy using it the ten times per day that you do? And typically when you make the choice to buy that item (versus the generic version) it is in your life for a long time. I have a keychain my brother and sister gave me as a Christmas gift my freshman year in college. I've never lost it because I cherish it.
How does Los Angeles influence your aesthetic?
I'm from New York so a certain amount of ambition and drive will always be in me. But take the freneticism out of your life and you're left with the freedom to create at your own pace. And there's magic in that. There is magic that comes from contemplation and thoughtfulness and time. Los Angeles affords that.
Can you walk me through a typical work day? What's your daily routine?
- I hike with the dog.
- Stop at Cookbook for coffee.
- Run downtown to the jewelry district.
- Get home by 11 or noon. Work with my assistant for about four hours.
- Make or go to dinner with my husband and friends.
- Come home. Binge TV on Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, etc. instead of responding to unanswered emails or cracking open the unread stack of magazines.
- Go down an Instagram rabbit hole. ‘Like’ a thousand pictures.
- Go to bed.