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Smoking in Style

Jewelry Designer Barry Kieselstein-Cord is Far From a Household Name, Which is Just the Way He Likes It
Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

Manhattan jewelry designer Barry Kieselstein-Cord breezes into a large light-filled studio in his townhouse on New York's Upper East Side. Wearing black jeans, a black wool pullover and red-tipped black cowboy boots, Kieselstein-Cord heads straight for the fireplace and warms his hands. "I'm just waking up," he says, as he stretches and yawns, his wavy gray hair in wild disarray. "Need to get warmed up."

On this gray December morning, Kieselstein-Cord is talking enthusiastically about his design career and his five-story mansion, which he calls Crocodile Hall in honor of one of his favorite motifs. From the outside, the stucco townhouse seems rather nondescript, but upon closer inspection, it is anything but. After entering the Gothic vaulted-ceiling vestibule, and viewing the eight fireplaces, two kitchens, two terraces and walk-in humidor, it becomes apparent that the house is opulent.

"It's very much my style: plain Jane on the outside," Kieselstein-Cord says, in his New-York-meets-Texas twang. Like his home, the jewelry, belt buckles, handbags and other objects he designs appear understated at first glance. On careful examination, one sees his trademark handcrafted, often whimsical details, which may be located on the inside of a bag, the back of a brooch or the underside of a belt buckle.

One example of Kieselstein-Cord's trademark style is his Vladimir The Bear sterling silver belt buckle from his 1997 collection (he has designed more than 350 buckles and adds about four new styles each year). It depicts a bear who has been foraging for berries and is ready to hibernate--or is he just waking up? The bear's face appears sleepy and satiated. The intricate grillwork on the back of the buckle shows a maze of raspberry bushes replete with the tiny fruit. The palpably prickly vines and veiny leaves are typical of Kieselstein-Cord's meticulous attention to detail. Visible only when it is not worn, the buckle's underside shows how the bear feeds himself.

Kieselstein-Cord, nicknamed "the bear" in high school, is constantly "feeding" himself. "Eye food" is his term for the objects that inspire him. His eye food ranges from outboard motors to insects to old locks and keys. "Even a dumb utilitarian product like a rat trap can be beautiful if it's done properly," he says. A voracious collector, Kieselstein-Cord surrounds himself with such objects, and a visit to his house is a feast for the eyes.

"It's a great backdrop for my mind," he says of his newest home. (He also has residences in Dallas, Santa Fe and Millbrook, New York.) "Everything around me is an extension of my aesthetic." His designs are extensions of the environment in which they are created.

When Kieselstein-Cord designed Vladimir the Bear in 1997, he, too, was in hibernation mode. "I've been asleep for years and now I'm just [waking up]," he explains, sitting in one of six Le Corbusier black leather and chrome chairs surrounding a glass coffee table in his studio. In an uncharacteristically messy, well-publicized split, he divorced Cece, his wife of 23 years, in 1997 ("It was a bit like marrying into a Tennessee Williams family," he once told a W reporter), and bought the townhouse.

The townhouse had been in hibernation, too. Built in the 1920s, the former home of realist painter and architect J. Stewart Barney had been vacant since 1962. Kieselstein-Cord has restored the house, emphasizing its architecture rather than its glitz.

"One can enjoy minimalism and the world of rococo," he points out. His home illustrates this. Flanking the studio's elaborately carved marble fireplace are two nearly life-size bronze nudes. In contrast, the Le Corbusier chairs and tables are products of the bare-bones Bauhaus movement.

Kieselstein-Cord is a man of many contradictions. He is "a slave to antiquity" yet is "wild about technology." He collects old cameras yet shoots with the newest state-of-the-art equipment. (He does most of his advertising and promotional photography himself.) He has an antique automobile collection, but loves to drive the latest cars and owns a fleet of race cars, Team Kieselstein-Cord. "Even though I work in the material [realm], my interests are much more in a spiritual direction," he says. "The vibrations that things give off are much more interesting than the things themselves."

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