As I was preparing to interview Betty Cooke, Baltimore’s preeminent jewelry artist, I came across an ad for the Store, Ltd. in the Baltimore Sun from 1989 that stated “When it’s Betty Cooke, everybody knows it. When it’s Betty Cooke, everybody notices.” I was struck by how relevant the ad was today, 31 years later. Indeed, when you see someone wearing a Betty Cooke piece, you take notice. Her jewelry, most of it composed of simple line work constructed in sterling silver, is elegant, timeless, and remarkably wearable.
With her late husband, the painter Bill Steinmetz, Betty opened the Store Ltd. 55 years ago. The design store, located in Cross Keys in north Baltimore, sells a plethora of functional objects, collectibles, and clothing alongside of Betty’s jewelry. At 95, Betty has been working as an artist for over 75 years. Her jewelry, with its modern designs and strikingly simple forms, exists as a continuous through line connecting the decades of work she has accomplished as an artist and designer. On the day I sat down to interview her, she was a walking ad for her store, wearing a black sweater with white polka dots, black slacks, a slim-fitting black wool poncho, sensible shoes and polka dot socks along with two of her distinct jewelry pieces.
I really like the relationship I get to have with the wearer. If people didn’t like my jewelry, I wouldn’t have kept doing it.
When I talk to jewelers, I always like to learn about their personal jewelry history. Do you have an early memory of jewelry from your childhood?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t have a specific jewelry memory from childhood. But I have always been interested in all kinds of objects, whether it’s jewelry or pots or baskets. And I was interested in both the objects themselves and in how they were made. More than jewelry itself, I liked the act of adornment. I wasn’t interested in diamonds and rubies but I loved to pick things up and wear them.
Was there a definitive point that you began making jewelry or did you gradually incorporate it into your practice?
Well, at MICA/the Maryland Institute, I started in painting, but I worked in wood and metals, all kinds of materials. And I liked working with metal, but I have to admit I liked working with everything, all the materials I was introduced to. But it was the wearable metal pieces that people liked best. And the more people liked them, the more I continued to make them. I think I liked knowing that people like them. That was an exciting thing to see. They wore the work and the work got noticed, people reacted to it. I found that my customers liked having a simple signal or symbol to wear.
I read that you were a Girl Scout. Do you think there’s a connection between what you found in scouting and what you found in making objects?
I was raised with two older brothers and they were Boy Scouts so of course I had to be a Girl Scout. In scouting, I fell in love with the very simple, clear approach to everything. Scouting was very practical. Good design is very practical. Good design can be found in any place. I fell in love with the idea of a very simple approach to things. It’s not that scouting was elegant, but scouting was simple, clear-cut. And that’s what I like most in objects: when they are simple, clear-cut, practical.
When you were beginning to make jewelry, was there anyone designing jewelry or objects that you were really inspired by?
It’s funny, somebody else asked me that recently, and I don’t have a good answer. I wasn’t looking to specific artists or designers for inspiration. You can’t always tell why you like something. But there were certainly things that excited me. I loved Charles Eames and Bertoia and Calder. I liked what I saw of their lifestyle. But it wasn’t that the work itself inspired me. It was more that I saw in them someone else who was thinking the way I sort of thought. And that was so nice, to see that other people think the way you do.
So many people remark that your work is an enduring example of good design. Can you tell me what good design means to you?
That’s a big question, but I think you can find good design in every culture, every kind of material. I mean, it goes way back. You can say it in the Egyptian Pyramids and cave paintings, those are both examples of good design. It’s a quality that I think people find hard to describe. And there’s no one way to describe it. It’s clear to me when something is poorly designed. It’s about color and space and layout. It can also be about comfort, especially when it’s furniture or clothing. But for me, it’s also about something intuitive. A lot of what is considered good design, like work coming out of the Bauhaus Movement, was new and different and extraordinary, but it was too austere and cold for me. I wanted to make things that had some warmth, things that were playful.
I really love that your aesthetic resists being dated. When you were making your early work, were you ever thinking that it would still be relevant in 40 years’ time?
On no. Not long ago, I was invited to be in an exhibition of work that was made in the 50s. I submitted a piece of jewelry that had plexiglass in it. They curator called me up and asked “Are you sure this piece was something you made in the 50s?” The work didn’t fit in their minds as something from that time period, they thought it was made much more recently. There are people who make really wonderful, wild work. But my things aren’t that way. I said recently to someone, if you are a part of a movement, you don’t know about it until it’s over. You look back and that’s when you can see it. Someone can tell me I am a modernist, and I can look back and say “I guess so. I guess I am.”
Jewelry can be so personal and so intimate. We tell ourselves stories with and about our jewelry. Why do you think that people choose your jewelry to collect and tell stories with?
Well that’s the thing that makes it so different than the painting I used to do. When you work in your studio as a painter, you can love the work just for the fact that you are doing it, just for yourself. But with jewelry there is an audience and there is a conversation. I like having the audience. That might sound vain, but I really like the relationship I get to have with the wearer. If people didn’t like my jewelry, I wouldn’t have kept doing it. I love seeing jewelry on people because it gives you a kind of contact with that person. You can tell someone you like what they are wearing. And maybe that person can feel that we understand each other. Jewelry just has a certain expression that I like very much.
We were very clear about what we wanted: good, practical design. We called the shop the Store specifically because we wanted to be able to buy anything we wanted.
Tell me about starting the Store Ltd. with Bill. What were your goals?
We wanted a store that reflected what we thought was good design, no matter what media. It could be a toy, it could be a jar, it could be a rug. We thoroughly enjoyed going to all these shows and different countries to select work to sell. It was so exciting to see so much work and consider our opinions about the work. We were always very thoughtful about what we were choosing. We were curating. There was of course a lot to choose from. There was a lot of macramé at the time! And there was a lot of clutter.
But we were very clear about what we wanted: good, practical design. We called the shop the Store specifically because we wanted to be able to buy anything we wanted. We didn’t want to call it a boutique or a shop. We wanted the name to be flexible to all kinds of objects that we chose. So, the name was a symbol of that. It was practical!
What inspires you?
That’s hard to answer. I once envisioned a show I wanted to do for the ACC, I never ended up doing it, but I had planned it in my mind. It was a whole window of just circles, but different sizes and textures and proportions. I think I like the moon and the sun. You know, you look up into the sky and you see the big moon and the clear sky. And here on earth there is all of this confusion and clutter. You can look up at sky and get a big break.
Everybody wants to find out what influenced you or what direction did you go in and why, and sometimes you don’t know. Why do you like this object or this artwork? Some people can explain that in detail. For me it’s much more intuitive. I know when something is beautiful and when something excites me.
Do you ever think about the legacy of your work?
Not really. I like to connect to people. I like that people like my work. If I had thought in the beginning that I was supposed to design something that everybody’s going to remember and wear for a long time, that would have been too much pressure! I didn’t have time for that kind of thinking. I just knew I wanted to make good jewelry.