The designer talks about growing up in Philadelphia, what inspires his instantly recognizable jewelry, and tips for budding artists.
“Every time I come, I get chills.”
Steven Lagos, dressed in head-to-toe black as usual, recently visited the Barnes Foundation to reflect on his artistic inspiration with the museum’s senior vice president, Nina Diefenbach. His eponymous jewelry brand turns 45 this year.
“We live in an age where everything is measured by taste,” Lagos said, pitting today’s content creators against artists like Amedeo Modigliani, who was harshly criticized and underappreciated in his day (at the time). except for Dr. Barnes, his main patron, who bought the artist’s paintings in bulk), but persisted in his distinctive style until his untimely death. Although he died destitute, Modigliani’s 1917 work Reclining nude (on the left side) has been the most valuable work never sold at Sotheby’s a century later, Lagos noted. “I wonder how many of us today are doing something so creative that 100 years later people will still be praising it,” he reflected.
Unsurprisingly, Modigliani was therefore one of three artists in the Barnes Collection whom Lagos identified as a favorite – in particular, his portrait of Leopold Zborowski, below:
Also created in 1919 in Paris, Lagos named Chaïm Soutine’s Young girl in a red blouse as another favorite. The fact that so many of the artists featured in the Barnes Collection lived in the same place at the same time, and that the eponymous collector was able to recognize this emerging “collaborative hotbed” that so few in the art world respected, is not lost on on Lagos; yet he also noted Barnes’ idiosyncratic curation: “You don’t need youo know the names of the artists or the chronology. …Barnes just wanted you feel Something. He collected for love, which I think is kind of romantic.
He knows a little about it. Growing up in Philadelphia, “I always knew I wanted to do something creative,” Lagos recalls. “In the 1970s, if you had a learning disability, they didn’t know what to do with you. It was like, ‘Just sit over there and draw your pictures and don’t disturb the class.'” So he took painting classes for children at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Saturdays and was encouraged by his parents to pursue his passions.
Lagos’ father had aspired to be an artist, but instead chose the more practical route of starting a laundry business. The business was lucrative, but he was not without regrets and did not even allow young Steven to work in the family shop. “He said, ‘I’ll pay you 50 cents an hour if you want to work here.’ The minimum wage at the time was $2.50.
Lagos dabbled in many art forms before settling into jewelry in 1977; and it wasn’t until 1984 that he discovered his signature Caviar design which has continued to this day.
“In order to really grow a brand, I really needed to pick something and lock it in, and develop it into a lifetime of jewelry,” he explained, indicating that a distinctive “signature” style is the key to success for any type of artist.
Charming nod to its trademark, Lagos has unveiled its third favorite artist: the pointillist Georges Seurat. “He was like a scientist. He used these little dots to create dimension and color story. I also work with small dots.
Lagos continues to be inspired by travel and art, sharing photos of his colorful office which houses his personal collection of pop art by KAWS and Murakami. (He identified the collaboration and innovation emerging from Japanese-inspired “super flat” art as a modern analogue of Paris a century ago, in case you were wondering.) And like his own parents he has encouraged his daughter Kate to pursue a creative career – she works alongside her father as a stylist for the Lagos brand.
Like her signature jewelry, the three artists Lagos selected had unique styles that made their work “instantly recognizable,” an early form of branding before it even existed. “These people were so dedicated to their vision and what they were doing,” he said, offering one final simple piece of advice to young artists: “Find something you love and stick with it.”