American jewelry and accessories designer
Born: Nuremburg, Germany, 7 July 1947. Education: Graduated from Beloit College, Beloit, WI. Family: Married Susan; children: Taylor. Career: Showed first collection in 1972; owner, Robert Lee Morris Gallery, since 1974; owner/manager, Artwear Gallery, 1977-93; introduced Robert Lee Morris Necessities mail order catalogue, 1993; also packaging designer, Elizabeth Arden, New York, from 1992. Exhibitions: Artwear Gallery, New York, 1992; Good as Gold: Alternative Materials in American Jewelry, Smithsonian Institution (international touring exhibition), 1981-85; retrospective, Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1995. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1981; Council of Fashion Designers of America award, 1985, 1994; International Gold Council award, 1987; Woolmark award, 1992; American Accessories Achievement award, 1992; Grand Prix, Tahitian Pearl Trophy, North America, Necklace Category, 2000; Site of the Week award, Professional Jeweler, January 2001. Address: Robert Lee Morris Gallery; 400 West Broadway; New York, NY 10012, USA. Website: www.robertleemorris.com .
"Nature as Inspiration," in Professional Jeweler, January 2000.
Untracht, Oppi, Jewelry Concepts and Technology, Garden City, New York, 1982.
Cartlidge, Barbara, Twentieth Century Jewelry, New York, 1985.
Shields, Jody, All That Glitters, New York, 1987.
Mulvagh, Jane, Costume Jewelry in Vogue, London, 1988.
Blauer, Ettagale, Contemporary American Jewelry Design, New York, 1991.
Cera, Deanne Farneti, Jewels of Fantasy: Costume Jewelry of the 20th Century, New York, 1992.
Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York, 1996.
"Artwear: Redefining Jewelry with a Modern Style," in Vogue (New York), January 1984.
Gross, Michael, "Jewelry Mirrors Its Designer," in the New York Times, 7 April 1987.
Johnson, Bonnie, "Jewelry Designer Robert Lee Morris Sinks His Claws Into Heavy Metal," in People, 11 May 1987.
Hochswender, Woody, "Attention-Getter," in the New York Times, 25 April 1989.
Hamilton, William L., "What Becalms a Legend Most," in Metropolitan Home, May 1989.
Greendorfer, Tere, "Going for the Bold," in the Sunday Star Ledger (London), 2 July 1989.
Newman, Jill, "On the Cutting Edge with Robert Lee Morris," in WWD, 19 August 1989.
"Freedom Saunters into Style; Polar Opposites, Isaac Mizrahi and Romeo Gigli Lead a Runaway Renaissance," in People, Spring 1990.
Myers, Coco, "Icon Maker," in Mirabella (New York), October 1990.
Sikes, Gini, "World Apart," in Harper's Bazaar, October 1990.
Greco, Monica, "Portrait of the Artist," in Sportswear International (New York), 1991.
Mower, Sarah, "Robert Lee Morries: A Multi-Faceted New York Jeweller Finds Inspiration in the British Isles," in Vogue (London), November 1991.
Slesin, Suzanne, "Inspiration is Only a Room Away," in the New York Times, 9 January 1992.
Schiro, Ann-Marie, "Paying Tribute to a Wearable Art," in the New York Times, 26 April 1992.
Spindler, Amy M., "Piety on Parade: Fashion Seeks Inspiration," in the New York Times, 5 September 1993.
Goodman, Wendy, "Breaking Ground," in Harper's Bazaar, February 1994.
Menkes, Suzy, "A Jeweler's Creed: Value is in the Design," in the International Herald Tribune (Paris), 17 April 1995.
Reif, Rita, "A Fashion Maker Looks Beyond Seventh Avenue," in the New York Times, 3 December 1995.
Blauer, Ettagale, "Robert Lee Morris," in American Craft, April-May 1996.
"Sugar and Vice," in Cosmopolitan, March 2000.
"New Money," in International Jeweler, April-May 2000.
Marx, Linda, "Wear Art Thou?" in Simply the Best, December 2000.
D'Annunzio, Gracia, "Isn't Jewelry Art?" in Vogue Gioiello (Italy), March 2001.
Karimzadeh, Marc, "Bridging the Gap," in WWD, Summer 2001.
My jewelry is a distant cousin of ancient armor—those smooth, sensual body-conscious constructions that employ ingenious mechanics to allow for fluid movement. My inspiration has never been clothing or fashion trends, but rather the human need for personal intimacy, with tokens of spiritual potential that amulets and talismans provide.
I constantly seek to fine-tune, focus, purify, and strengthen my style, to make it more clear, more recognizable, and more understandable by people of any and all cultures. Mass fashion jewelry, in my mind, is purely decorative, employing a cacophony of glittery values to achieve a dazzling effect. This is as much a part of human culture as the bright plumage of birds, and will remain with us, as it should. But it has always been against this world that I design my work; placing value on classicism and heirloom status over the thrill of temporary trends. My forms and shapes lead my concepts. My concepts are generally anthropological and my attitude is "less is more."
—Robert Lee Morris
"Wearable art," as created by Robert Lee Morris, has become a symbol of style among young, modern, rebellious, sexy, and chic individuals. Morris has redefined the way people perceive jewelry. He entered the fashion scene some 20 years ago and has transformed the contemporary jewelry industry by drawing on symbols from antiquity in ways that underscore their relevance to our lives today. He remains fascinated by the meaning of art, the role of jewelry as a talisman of the spirit. Morris maintains a keen appreciation of a pure, powerful aesthetic.
Born in wartorn Nuremburg, Germany, the son of a U.S. Air Force colonel and a former fashion model, Morris was a world traveler at a young age. He was schooled in places like Brazil and Japan, as the family followed Morris' father from post to post, moving over 25 times before Robert turned 18. Morris graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1969 with a degree in art. Soon thereafter, he joined an artists' commune near Beloit and began designing jewelry.
Originally planning a career in anthropology, but recognizing his artistic talents, Morris combined his favorite discipline and added art, history, sculpture, filmmaking, and much more into the craft of jewelry making. As a self-taught artist, Morris developed a distinctive "Etruscan" gold finish by layering pure 24-carat gold over brass. As opposed to the high shine of 18-carat gold jewelry, the matte yellow gold has an unusual muted glow. Along the same lines, Morris created a green patina—a crude finish with the look of weathered stone. These creations not only established his style but filled a gap between costume jewelry and the "really real stuff."
When the commune accidentally burned down, Morris fled to shelter for the winter at the home of his friend Tony in Vermont. As luck or fate would have it, the forced flight turned out to be quite fortuitous. While in Vermont at a local crafts fair, a prominent gallery owner purchased one of Morris' necklaces. Within weeks, Morris was offered a contract to be represented by the chic gallery of famous artist jewelry, Sculpture to Wear, located in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
Morris relocated to New York in 1972 and found his work being displayed as artwork next to the likes of sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976), American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97), and artist Louise Nevelson (1899-1988). It was here that his bold, minimalistic, sculptural forms quickly became popular. Sales of his designs immediately outpaced such masters as Picasso, Braque, Calder, Max Ernst, and Man Ray. His Celtic crosses, cuffs, collars, disk belts, and heart-shaped brooches are treasured by the stylish glitterati, ranging from Hollywood celebrities and musicians—like Candice Bergen, Lisa Bonet, Cher, Bianca Jagger, Grace Jones, and Ali McGraw—to rich urban bikers and businessmen and women who are eager to express their individuality.
He opened his own gallery store, the Robert Lee Morris Gallery, described as "the very first 'designer store' of its kind," in 1974 on West Broadway in New York City, just down the street from the famous SoHo Grand Hotel. Two years later, he was featured on the cover of Vogue, and has been a cornerstone of fashion and jewelry design since, winning just about every major award in the field.
In 1977, three years after he moved to New York, Morris launched an entire modern jewelry movement when he opened his own gallery, called Artwear. At Artwear, Morris created a showcase "for artists focusing on jewelry as their prime medium" and attracted public interest through merchandising techniques as unique as the gallery's overall concept. The jewelry was displayed on dramatic plaster body casts resembling sculptural relics of ancient civilization. This concept was based on his belief that jewelry "comes alive on the body." He also developed an image catalogue, featuring models covered in mud, sand, and flour, which instantly became a collector's item. For 16 years, up to 1993, Morris' Artwear provided a haven and at least three showcase locations for young, new talent in the jewelry industry.
The following year, 1994, Morris began collaborating with a wide variety of famous designers including Geoffrey Beene, Anne Klein, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Karl Lagerfeld, and Kansai Yamamoto. When Donna Karan went solo, she turned to Morris to accessorize her collection with his jewelry, beginning thus far a two-decade on and off collaboration. Karan's fall 2001 collection featured Morris' jewelry as featured items.
In October 2000 the World Gold Council launched a major new multipage, four-color co-op print campaign titled, "The Gold Fashioned Girls." The $3-million media push featured Morris, Chimento, Roberto Coin, Tissot Watch, and Anglo Gold and appeared in various fashion, luxury, and lifestyle consumer magazines and jewelry trade publications.
In addition to being a successful jewelry designer and businessman, Morris designs handbags, belts, scarves, amulets, sconces, candlesticks, picture frames, packaging for beauty products (the latter for Elizabeth Arden), as well as his own fragrance, Verdigris, named for the ancient color that has become a signature of his mythic style.
Throughout his career, Morris has continually sought out new avenues for expression, collaborating with designers and contemporaries. In his own collections, he has invented a clean, pure, uniquely American style, launching such trends as "bold gold" and the green patina verdigris. Today Morris still lives in SoHo, New York, with his wife, Susan, and their daughter Taylor. A much sought-after lecturer, his philosophy has matured into "a synergy of anthropology, art, and spirituality shaped by a true and abiding love and understanding of beauty, and guided by the principles of Shamanism."
—Roberta H. Gruber;
updated by Daryl F. Mallett