At The Met Store, we have the unique honor of working with artists and craftspeople who are inspired by artworks from within The Met collection. Today we speak with Grady, half of the design duo behind Oropopo, who with his wife Karole has created a collection of innovative jewelry that exemplifies the transformation of a traditional material through experimentation and technology. Working in Albuquerque, New Mexico, their designs celebrate the mythology and iconography of the American Southwest that have inspired artists for centuries.
Shop their designs at The Met Store and online by clicking here.
I’ve read that your work is informed by Native American, Western, and New Mexican culture. What within those cultures inspires your creations?
New Mexico is such a unique and interesting place. Some of the oldest traditions in North America continue here. That longevity combined with an intertwining of cultures over time has created a unique design DNA. We have been inspired by such examples as the spiral pattern of the horns of oryx antelopes that once occupied the White Sands National Monument area, or something as iconic as the curves of a western saddle. The history here is complex, but that design DNA is often deceptively simple. Living in such a dry, thin air, this place seems to encourage a practical attitude toward design and that informs our work. We look for inspiration in the landscape and from iconic Southwestern objects, while being wary of appropriation. Our designs are not part of a Native American tradition. We hope the common ground between our work and the work of generations of artists and artisans in the Southwest is that we are also working from our experience of living in the Southwest and in this time.
Can you tell me a bit about the design techniques you employ, and about your creative process generally?
Our process isn’t formal by any means, but over time we have established a collaborative approach to our work. Karole is the designer. She may start with an abstract form or a concept sketch. Other times, a design is inspired by a passage of fiction or an interesting bit of research that I have shared with her. We have drawn from research into the Moorish influence on Spanish Colonial art. Other work was inspired by our bike rides along the irrigation acequias that wind through some of the older neighborhoods in our part of town.
That early stage is loose and a lot of initial ideas don’t become finished work. The later stages are in many ways more difficult than coming up with an idea. As Karole refines a piece, it goes through a constant rebalancing between the demands of making a beautiful object that can be reproduced, but also looks good on a person and is affordable.
As the piece is being refined, I concurrently develop a narrative for it. We go back and forth on the design for the piece and the narrative as part of the process. The designs are abstractions and the role of the narrative for us is to give them a context and maybe to ground them a little bit. If they can also convey to people some of the things we love about the Southwest, so much the better.
I see that Karole’s background is in architecture and engineering, while you are a writer and literary editor. How do these disciplines inform your work?
Before Oropopo, Karole was a senior associate with the architect Antoine Predock. When people learn this, that they often smile and give a nod of understanding because they can see the architectural sensibility in her work. But more than that, it was there that she developed her design sensitivity to site and culture. That experience has been foundational for her current work.
Whether from architecture or writing, we’ve both spent much of our adult lives trying to translate abstract ideas into concrete expressions. We’ve been together almost twenty years and we’ve always discussed each other’s work, but now it is more collaborative and more fun. We established our studio shortly after our now four-year-old son was born. That has meant constant working and parenting closely together. That might not be ideal for some people, but we feel grateful that we can.
Your designs have both a historical and futuristic aesthetic. Can you speak a bit about that?
Using a very technical tool like a laser cutter with leather, one of the oldest materials, certainly contributes to that sense of time jumping. But it doesn’t feel like a contradiction to us. It’s also the nature of the desert Southwest. We have some of the oldest ruins in North America and we also have Spaceport America, which hopes to establish tourism beyond our atmosphere. Something that isn’t often understood in the production process is how artisanal the work can be. Final designs are drawn in a CAD drafting program, which is how the laser cutter cuts the pattern. That part of the process has a precision to it. But, leather is inconsistent and requires experience and a good amount of intuition to find the right settings to produce consistent results.
Can you tell me about one of your designs that will be offered at The Met Store? I’m interested to hear about the design from concept to design and production.
The Malpais necklace is a good example of how we work. A good friend of ours and New York architect, Melissa Cicetti, is a great photographer. Part of a photo series she took in New Mexico was of the Malpais area. That translates to “badlands,” and it is an area covered with volcanic rock. Those photos were an initial inspiration that lead to long discussions of our own experiences and impressions visiting the Malpais, which included everything from anecdotes told by a junior high school biology teacher to research into the rate of speed for flowing lava. The striking feature of that landscape is the fractures in the smooth, black surface from the cooling molten rock. Karole wanted to convey the tactile quality to those ruptures. Weaving the cord through the cut pattern on the necklace expresses that. The beads are lava rock. There was some discussion about whether it was too literal to use that detail, but in the end it was right to include it and it softens the angular lines.
How does it feel to have your designs offered for sale within the context of The Met?
We haven’t been shy about telling our friends that our designs are being carried at The Met Store. It feels great. We’ve been awestruck visitors to the Museum. You have so many people, from all walks of life and cultures, flowing through one of the most important museums in the world. The idea that some of them will discover one of our pieces and make it part of their story, after touring some of the most important art and artifacts, is great!
Can you tell me about any specific works in The Met collection, or a particular visit to the Museum, that has inspired your work?
The last time we visited the Museum, Karole spent a good amount of time looking at ceramics from the Levant Neolithic period that helped her formalize a 3D-printed piece she had been working on. I am always happy to spend time looking at Frank Stella‘s early paintings. But one work in the collection that we love isn’t on display currently: Agnes Martin’s Untitled #9. We fell in love with her abstractions a few years ago, and the more we strive to capture elements of the Southwest in our work, the more we understand her grasp of this place where she lived and worked for many decades. In New Mexico it isn’t hard to reach the middle of nowhere, and it can be frightening or liberating. Agnes Martin’s work powerfully captures both experiences of the high desert.