Arthur George ‘Art’ Smith, one of the leading names in American jewellery design, is being celebrated this month as part of a design show at R & Company in New York.

‘Objects: USA 2020’ is a survey of 100 handmade arts and craft objects by 100 contemporary and historical makers, demonstrating the variety and vitality of work being produced across America in schools, studios and workshops today. Fifty years since the first groundbreaking ‘Objects USA’ show, many of the same themes still resonate, from traditional craft to abstraction, by established and emerging talent.

Silver spiral necklace against a grey backround
Spirals necklace in sterling silver. Designed and made by Art Smith, USA, 1946-82. Photograph by Joe Kramm, courtesy of R & Company

Now three of Smith’s pieces – a cuff bracelet, a plate necklace and a spiral necklace – are on view at R & Company’s Soho’s gallery alongside work by Anni Albers, J.B. Blunk, Wendell Castle, Sheila Hicks and more.

Consistently oversized and expressive, his graphic designs were inspired by natural forms, folk art and modernist sculpture, and speak a language that is part surrealist and part a reverence of the female form, making them as relevant today as they were radical in the 1950s when he rose to relative fame (although he never became a household name, his designs were featured on the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and today pieces are held in prestigious collections including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Brooklyn Museum): ‘The body is a component in design,’ Smith wrote in 1969, ‘just as air and space are. Like line, form, and color, the body is a material to work with.’ Eschewing traditional fine jewellery materials such as gold, he favoured copper, brass, aluminum, silver, and decorated pieces with glass and stones.

Brass spiral cuff against a grey background
Modern Cuff bracelet in brass and copper. Designed and made by Art Smith, USA, 1946-82. Photograph by Joe Kramm, courtesy of R & Company

Smith was born in Cuba in 1917, and moved to Brooklyn, aged 3, with his Jamaican parents. He trained at Cooper Union in Manhattan on a scholarship (whose alumni include Eva Hesse, Eve Krasner and Daniel Arsham), rejecting an initial path towards architecture in favour of sculpture – indeed, his hand hammered silver spirals and ergonomic shapes owe something to Alexander Calder, a prolific fellow New Yorker of the time.

Smith’s style was greatly influenced by Winifred Mason; a pioneering African-American metalwork jeweler who admired West Indian folk arts and specialised in bronze and copper, and who employed Smith at her Greenwich Village studio. Art was based in Greenwich Village for much of his career, and although it is reported he suffered attacks of racial hostility as a gay Black man making avant garde jewellery, he opened his first store on Cornelia Street in 1947, later moving premises to West 4th Street, cementing his presence as an important part of the burgeoning creative bohemian scene in the Village.

Curated by Glenn Adamson, James Zemaitis, Abby Bangser and Evan Snyderman, the show runs until a newly extended date of September 2021. §

Gold curved necklace against a grey background
Half and half necklace in brass. Designed and made by Art Smith, USA, 1946-82. Photograph by Joe Kramm, courtesy of R & Company