Robert Lee Morris

We get excited when we find ourselves interviewing legends; it’s always fun to have one of those ‘pinch me’ moments. A recent one – no doubt – was when we found ourselves sitting across from jewelry icon Robert Lee Morris. The designer has collaborated with every kind of style genius from Karl Lagerfeld to Donna Karen. He’s also had Andy Warhol pass him prints under the table at The Odeon…but we won’t spoil anymore for you. We sat down with Morris to discuss everything from the power of gold, to juicing, all the way to his collar on the cover of Vogue in 1976…

What would be your ideal food day?

Oh, that’s interesting. Well, my ideal food day starts with two cups of yogurt in a big shallow bowl, covered with this fruit salad that I’ve been making for my family. It’s like a miracle. My fourteen-year-old daughter actually loves it and will eat it every day. It’s raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and pomegranate seeds. Then I cover it with a couple of drops of Stevia to make it much sweeter, and then I sprinkle walnuts on top for myself. So that’s how I start the day. I was just diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, so I have to have a certain amount of calcium and vitamin D each day. That gives me a lot. Then I take lunch to work, and usually it’s what I’ve made the night before. I cook in our house, not my wife. She’s the eater and the cleaner-upper. I also love to bring one of those vegan prepared foods that you can buy in a lot of the markets now. It’s like sprouted brown rice, different kinds of soy chicken, seafood salads and big dumplings…a yummy variety. So I’ll often get a couple of those. Yesterday I had a bag of frozen okra, which I mixed in with it. And then today I brought a very special spice at [gourmet supermarket] Gourmet Garage

So, that’s lunch and then I snack on an apple. I’m so boring! And then when I get home, I tend to be not hungry for some crazy reason – partially because I don’t want to start making a big dinner. We’re starting to live off of Gourmet Garage. My wife will go out and get a variety of different things to eat, which are fresh, like chicken pot pies. My daughter is mad for them; she has them almost everyday. The two of them always eat this organic frozen chicken breast stuffed with either broccoli and asparagus or cheddar and ham or something. You cook these things up for thirty minutes in the oven and they are so delicious and crunchy. It’s like a huge ravioli.

Soho – and New York City in general –  seems to have been sprouting a whole lot of new food establishments. In my area alone, I’ve got Ladurée that opened next to my store, and Dominique Ansel Bakery on Spring Street a block from my home. I watch the lines form at six o’clock in the morning. I go in there often. Yesterday I went in, and I got three DKAs [Dominique’s Kouign Amann]. I bring them to work and I give them to people as surprise bombs. One day I managed to get two cronuts and I gave them to the owners of this company – it was my bribe.

I hear you’re very into juicing…

I’ve been juicing for a long, long time. My wife hates the fact that I have two juicers. I bought one for New York and one for our house in Connecticut. I find that juice stores are opening all over the place – like two or three in Soho that weren’t there last year. I’ve been laying out serious cash for these juices; I’m addicted to the different flavors that are hard to find. I don’t like it to have too much ginger or cayenne pepper. I’m in love with Gravity and Simple Green [from Juice Press]. Gravity is so good. It makes me feel like I’m going into the clouds somehow. (Laughs) The juices that I make at home really give me a kick. Like when I put in beets with apples and ginger – wow. It is like having a shot of some kind of stimulant. Juicing is the way of the future. We will stop eating all meat, because we will understand that all living things are our peers – our relatives – and we’ll be able to communicate with them all very soon, I’m sure. Of course, I don’t want to get into the heavy-duty cosmological, metaphysical stuff that I’m well-known for.

So besides that fact that juicing probably wasn’t as big of a thing, how has the landscape of jewelry changed since you first started?

That’s almost fifty years! Fifty years. Jewelry was basically divided between bridal, estate jewelry (which would include emerald necklaces or something from a long time ago, like a Van Cleef & Arpels original), and costume jewelry. There was no such thing as designer jewelry. So when I appeared in the early seventies, I was one of three or four people who managed to create the realm of designer jewelry, where jewelry would have the same effect on people (in terms of collecting a name designer) as clothing. Up to that point, the only famous jewelers were Mikimoto, Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier, but those are jewelers for kings. Who are the jewelers for us? We didn’t have any. And then all of the sudden there was Artwear [the gallery I founded]: Robert Lee Morris, Ted Muehling and Cara Croninger. Twenty years of artists were exhibited through my gallery from ’77 until ’93, basically. I became kind of known as the father of the designer jewelry movement. That’s the biggest change – that we’re respected now as designers, not as just no-name people who make jewelry and sell it. For instance, I’m crazy for anything by Pamela Love, because there is something about Pamela Love’s work that’s so her. And that is the true nature of the change. There is [now] an emotional bond that is formed between the consumer and the designer.

Is there a specific memory you have of when you found out that your collar was going to be on the cover of Vogue in 1976? 

Well yes; it was very strange. I envisioned it happening five or six years before. I created a commune where I taught myself how to make jewelry, and I was in this woodshed, beating out brass wire to the sound of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love. I was making jewelry all night long, and [I had] this vision of this jewelry I was making being on the cover of Vogue. And so then when it happened, I just thought, ‘Holy goodness, I saw it!’ It was like a premonition. I began to believe in myself – in my instincts. I grabbed my best friend and took her to the Oloffson Hotel in Haiti and we just had a week of whooping it up. That was really the last big cover of Vogue.

It was a crazy, crazy thing. Then, suddenly, every single issue for seven years gave us editorial credit (me, and all of the other people at Artwear).

Every Sunday, I held open court [at Artwear] where a new designer could come and show me their work and I would give them a critique, and see if it was something I might want to show in the gallery. Once in a while, someone would come who was a true-born genius talent. I would get on the phone immediately and call every editor and say, ‘You’ve got to see the work of such-and-such.’ Next thing you know, there is a three-page spread in Elle, a two-page spread in Vogue, or a cover of Bazaar. It was like a star-making machine that was going on at that time. So that was one thing I witnessed. It’s not going on anymore, and I’d like to get it going again. I really would. That’s a dream of mine.

My experience now is that when editors are out and about, going to people’s shops, going to people’s showrooms, and taking pictures, they expand the world. And they become a collaborator in a way. They push the designer to be better.

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