The beauty of simplicity: jeweller Poppy Norton plays with Bauhaus design

Posted by Rae Gellel on

After eighteen successful years spent working as a stylist for interiors magazines, North London-based maker Poppy Norton felt the call of the workshop. Responding to a fierce compulsion to make things with her hands again, she began her jewellery training at Morley College in 2016, applying her wealth of design and styling experience to this new medium, to almost instantly popular results. Although still at a relatively early stage in the second career of her life, Poppy’s design-led, statement jewellery has made appearances on television, in design and lifestyle magazines and at Paris Fashion Week in 2020. It is large, bold, and deceptively simple, crafted with the goal of “starting a conversation”.

Shaped by Bauhaus is Poppy’s latest fine jewellery collection, and as its name suggests, it is inspired by the Bauhaus movement, which is typified by clean lines, smooth surfaces and basic geometric shapes such as rectangles and circles. Constructed from sheet materials and tubular silver, the pieces included in Shaped by Bauhaus share a coherent visual language, a limited palette of colours and shapes which allows pieces to be mixed and matched, whilst flattering and framing the body.

Hello Poppy. So, what first attracted you to career as a maker, and how did you get started in the industry?

I originally trained as a product designer at Central St. Martin's, and fell into styling for magazines and television, which I absolutely loved. I did that for 18 years, and then I had children, which shifted my outlook a bit. Trying to juggle freelancing with small children was tricky, and the rise of social media meant that people's appetite for magazines had also started to wane. I had a rethink, and decided that I missed both the making process and the experience of being in a workshop. I was getting frustrated sitting in front of a computer every day.

Ever since I was a child, I have always been drawn to making. I did pottery and printmaking classes at Camden Art Centre from a young age, and I was always creative at school. Interestingly, I didn't do an art GCSE, I did textiles, and then moved into art at A-Level, where I actually specialised in sculpture. I never found it easy working in 2D, I was always happiest working with my hands to make three-dimensional objects. So I tried lots of short courses; I did ceramics, I did printmaking, and then I tried jewellery. I wasn’t particularly interested in jewellery initally, but I did a course at Morley College, and absolutely fell in love with it. I think it was partly because in a workshop, you're surrounded by things that are quite dangerous, so you have to give it your full attention.

Also, no children are allowed in a workshop, which is really quite nice if you're a new parent, to have a space that's just for you. I just loved it. I previously worked in interiors, so I'm product design-orientated, and I'd become so saturated in my knowledge that it had begun to feel that nothing was new to me, and if I’d wanted to design for that industry, I'd already seen everything. Whereas I was, and still am, quite naive when it comes to jewellery design. I don't want to be intimidated into thinking that I can't do something because it has been done before. So, I liked jewellery making because it was looking at something with fresh eyes, an entirely new experience for me. I think I'll always have impostor syndrome. I'm very much still a work in progress, and it would be naive to think that I know a lot about jewellery, because I'm still a newbie as it were, despite my age.

I think Morely College was a great platform for me, and a great place to learn because it gave me set projects that stretched me to learn about press forming, enamelling, or soldering. Being given modules like that, really pushed me to work in ways that I would never choose to. I think it's fair to say I really dislike stone-setting. It's a huge art and I have total respect to anyone that can do it, but it's not for me, partly because I don't really like twinkly jewellery, and partly because I’m just not very patient, which isn't a great quality to have as a jeweller, but that’s the truth.

Can you tell us a bit about the collection you’ll be debuting at Shine 2022?

The collection is called Shaped by Bauhaus, taking inspiration from the Bauhaus teachings and embracing the idea of basic geometric shapes, combined with primary colours, flat surfaces, and unadorned surface finishes. It's quite a playful collection. All the pieces have a limited design language to them so they can all be worn together very easily. There's quite a lot of movement in some pieces, whilst other pieces are designed to be mixed and matched, according to your mood. I stuck to circles, triangles, rectangles and squares for the collection, predominantly using sheet silver in combination with tubular metal, which was used a lot by the Bauhaus designers. The colour palette is limited to silver, blue, yellow and red, again, taking inspiration from the Bauhaus movement.

Has this collection enabled you to explore any new techniques or materials?

This is the first collection that's completely made in silver. A lot of my previous work has been made in brass, and that's partly due to the sheer scale of my work. Brass does lend itself to bigger pieces, because it's a harder metal and it's harder to melt as well, so when you're working large scale, it's actually easier. This collection is all silver and it came with its challenges. I had to learn to be patient, and some pieces had to be made several times before I got them right.


What does your design process look like?

I keep a visual journal on my phone. I take a lot of photographs. In lockdown, in particular, I went on a lot of walks, as we all did, and I would take photographs of architectural details that interested me. It might be small things that most people don't really pay attention to. It could have been the way that roof tiles overlap or the pattern of some 1960s brickwork, for example. Details like that really influence me. The reason that I love having a workshop is that I like to play. I much prefer to design with materials and test things out than actually design on paper, because it's about the body and how things sit on it. Quite often, I'll get a big sheet of sticky back plastic, and I’ll stick shapes to myself to work out the positioning of things. I've designed a large body brooch, called the Shape Stack Body Brooch, and it's almost like a necklace without being a necklace, it's so big it frames you. What’s really exciting about it is that it can be worn in so many different directions, framing the body in different ways. At the end of the day, jewellery is a 3D thing that is meant to be worn, so it's really important to not just design on a piece of paper.

So, in the process of planning and developing your own collection, what have you learned about yourself as a designer?

I think it's made me focus on what I like, what I want to do and where I want to be going. It has been a really good exercise in self-assessment - giving myself a brief and constantly referring back to it, making sure that I don’t create something that looks nice but that doesn't really work with the rest of the collection because it doesn’t really fit the original brief.

What’s your favourite thing about being a maker?

I absolutely adore being in the workshop! I love making things, especially on days when things go right, because I think it's fair to say we all have days when we go into a workshop and everything just goes wrong. You just have to put a pin in those days and say: “You know what, I can't do it today, and I'm going to take a break and do something else.” I love the days when the magic happens though, the days where you really go: “Oh my God, I actually made that, I'm really proud of that. That was really difficult, but it looks great, it's amazing!” Then when you put it out there and you see people that you really respect compliment your work or buy your work, then you're like: “Oh, I can die happy now.”

Do you have a favourite piece in the collection?

I honestly don't feel I can say I have one favourite piece, because it's a bit like someone asking who your favourite child is. You can't pick. The Shape Stack Body Brooch took a huge amount of effort and days of getting it wrong, and getting advice on how to do it better.

Then at the end, I had to put it away for a bit because it was so frustrating, but the fact that I achieved it is something I'm immensely proud of. However, there are also the simple pieces, like my Circle Ring, which was one of the first pieces that I ever designed and it's still one the pieces that I wear the most often. It has come on a long journey with me, it's liked by a lot of people and it continues to get great feedback. Initially it was only available in brass but now I make it in silver too.

There's something very satisfying about a how quick and easy it is to wear a ring. I've also designed a Shapes Necklace, which, again, was technically quite tricky, so I'm really proud of that. It's the problem solving that stands out. Take the Circle Earrings in the collection for example, the circle moves independently to the silver stem, they’re quite playful, but the final design took me about a year to resolve. I went down many roads overcomplicating things before coming up with a really simple solution. They’ve got little details that most other people won't notice, like the tiny washer to stop the metal from scratching the acrylic. Things like that - they take quite a bit of thought but it's really satisfying when you work out a solution.

What kind of person do you think is most attracted to your collection, and to your design style in general – do you have an ideal client in mind?

I think my client base is very much design savvy customers who are into architecture in a big way. They're into mid-century design. They're quite confident women and gentleman. A lot of architects and designers and stylists seem to appreciate my work, and I find that immensely flattering as well, because that's also my background and my area of interest. I have a strong feeling that everything I design, I should want to wear myself. If I don't want to wear it, it generally gets cut out of the collection because if I don't like it, I think it's a bit strange to expect someone else to like it. I'm kind of designing for myself in the hope that people who can relate to me, will like the work, too!

Are there particular pieces in your collection that you find men are more drawn to?

Yes, rings and brooches. I'd say because my work is so large and it definitely makes a statement, confident people are drawn to it, people who are perhaps more comfortable with who they are, as opposed to people that maybe want to blend in a bit more.

How do you choose which materials to work with?

I wanted to love enameling, but I didn’t like the meniscus layer as I wanted to create incredibly flat surfaces, because the point at which the materials meet in my designs is really important to me, so that kind of ruled enameling out. I have tried other materials, I occasionally work with lino and I also use scorched wood. Previously I would often powder coat my work, but because of lockdown, services and equipment that were once easily available to me were suddenly unavailable, so that pared back my designs again.

The reason I work with acrylic is because the colours are fabulous, but also because it's flat, and because it can be laser cut, so you get the precision. Are there other materials out there that I could work with - I'm sure there are. Have I found them yet? No, but that doesn't mean I won't.

Because of the scale of my jewellery, I desperately push against it being seen as blingy or glitzy. I almost always use a brushed surface finish to give the pieces a softer appearance. I don’t want them to look flashy, I want them to look interesting, I want them to be a statement and a talking point. Not because a piece looks expensive, but because of how it's designed. Mixing materials and using acrylic, which isn't necessarily seen as something precious, is also presenting the idea that it’s precious because it’s been designed in a considered way. I do battle with it not being very environmentally friendly to use plastic, but then I'm using it in a way that means it's not a throwaway item, it’s meant to be kept forever, but it’s still something I’m working on improving.

What are your professional and creative goals for the next two years?

The pandemic has been hard. Just before it started, I felt like my career was starting to become exciting and snowball. I had work that had just appeared at Paris Fashion Week in 2020, and then the pandemic hit, and like so many, I found things really difficult. People really like to see my work in person, to feel it, to try it on, to see the scale of it, have the conversation. So, I’m looking forward to returning to in-person shows. I can’t wait to be back exhibiting at Midcentury Modern, which is actually a furniture design show, and that's always great for me, because the people that attend have similar interests, so again, it's that shared understanding. I'd like to go back to Morley College and do more courses to push myself maybe in other directions that I haven't expanded on yet. It's also good to work to someone else's brief sometimes, because it pushes you out of your comfort zone. Since the pandemic, I now have my own workshop, which is wonderful, I absolutely adore it, but it can be quite lonely. So, getting out there and working with other jewellers and having conversations is great, and more exhibitions - always exhibitions! They’re a source of great inspiration.

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