Walking into jewelry designer Robert Lee Morris’ Artwear gallery in SoHo is like stumbling upon a lost civilization. The walls are lined with clay torsos draped with bold rings, choker necklaces and earrings oxidized into shades of green, gray and rust. The scene looks as if Morris had unearthed a clan of Pompeiians who tried to outrun the lava with the family jewels—and failed.
“I’m an anthropologist in art,” says Morris, 39, one of New York’s most in-demand designers. “My works look like the result of an archaeological dig.” Using metals such as bronze, brass, gold, silver and antique copper and nickel, Morris crafts knuckle rings that resemble human bones, necklaces that conjure up bolts of lightning, and six-inch silver talons and matching breastplates. None are recommended for the office. “I call them body sculptures,” the designer says. “They appeal to people who want a strong personal look”—people such as Cher, Bianca Jagger, Grace Jones, Candice Bergen, AN MacGraw and Lisa Bonet.
Morris, winner of a 1981 Coty Award, has also produced accessories for the collections of such fashion titans as Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld and Kansai Yamamoto. When New York designer Donna Karan went solo, she tapped Morris to create silver, brass and gold pieces to go with her line. “My Body Pin was the key to her collection,” he boasts. They’ve collaborated ever since.
Besides his three Manhattan Artwear shops, Morris’ jewelry is sold nationwide in 85 stores. As for the jewelry’s $50 to $20,000 price range, Morris sniffs, “The value of a piece no longer rests on the glamour of the stone but on what’s behind the work intellectually.”
Morris came by his flair naturally. He was born in Nuremberg, West Germany, where his father, a U.S. Air Force colonel, preferred silk ascots to neckties. His mother was a former fashion model. Schooled in Japan and Brazil, Morris graduated from Wisconsin’s Beloit College in 1969 with an art degree. Soon after he joined an artists’ commune near Beloit and began designing jewelry. “My mentor was a macho man from Georgia,” he says. “The most important thing he taught me was that it was okay for a man to make jewelry.”
The next year the farmhouse burned down, and Morris relocated to Putney, Vt. Discovered by a New York art dealer at a local crafts fair, he moved to Manhattan, and by 1972 his designs were side by side at one gallery with the art of Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson. In 1977 he opened a shop on proper Madison Avenue and failed miserably because his designs were considered too pricey and avant-garde for the time. Concedes Morris: “The mix of ancient/primitive with Flash Gordon was out of reach.” He invested the last of his savings in the SoHo gallery. Last year Morris grossed $8 million, according to one trade journal. He lives alone in a SoHo loft, where he enjoys cooking and reading Stephen King thrillers. His other passion is traveling to exotic outposts such as Peru and Kenya, where he draws inspirations from ancient cultures. “I’ll always make reference to the past,” he says. “The classics never grow old.”