Lara Knutson is the marriage of right brain and left brain made flesh. She’s an artist and a scientist (of sorts). She runs a jewelry company yet the Smithsonian and the Corning Museum of Glass own her sculptures. She was trained as an architect and industrial designer, and she knows how to design the materials she works with and the machines that know how to handle them. She seeks inspiration from nature—Central Park is her place—yet she’s utterly hip and urban. Intrigued? Read on!
Tell me what you do.
I was trained as an architect. I worked for ten years as an architect, and then I got my master’s degree in industrial architecture at Pratt. I started making jewelry in 2007, with some materials I was experimenting with, although not with the intention of setting out to really design jewelry and make a company out of it. The materials lent themselves to becoming jewelry. My thesis advisor, Alan Wexler, one of my favorite professors, said, “Whatever you do, don’t stop doing your own thing. Don’t get caught up in a job. Always stay creative.” I got what he was saying, so after work and on the weekends I would tinker around in my studio with materials, not with any goal, just experimenting for the sake of experimenting. Then I discovered the materials I’m working with now, and I became obsessed. I really like to learn about things as I discover them, so I really started getting into the depth of it and really started to see possibilities. I’m now working with material scientists to develop things further.
So you’re serious. When you do your research, you really do it.
I just find that there are so many materials I’m interested in, but we only get one life, and you can skim the surface of a bunch of things, or really get into depth on one. So that’s really what I intend to do.
Are you doing the jewelry full-time right now?
I have my own company. My industrial design practice is part of it. I’d also love to keep working on architectural projects, but I don’t want to do architecture full-time. I love it, but I didn’t like the profession. It’s extremely hard. Whenever I see an architect build something cool, I’m amazed that it happened because I know what it takes. Everything is always value-engineered, and then you have to deal with the clients and the city and the budgets. Your vision gets watered down so much. Honestly, if I see a building that’s half-decent I think, “Good for you.” I can’t imagine how beautiful it once was. I like to do things that are more immediate, as far as being creative. I like to work with my hands, and I experiment with my hands, and I think with my hands. I like to make things. You don’t really get that with architecture.
It’s much more conceptual, right?
It’s more conceptual, but also, it can take fifteen years. And you’re dealing with other people who are making everything. I just couldn’t be the kind of creative person I wanted to be in that field.
What kind of creative person do you want to be?
I love how I’m living now. I get to do what I want and need to do. I have to answer to my clients, which is fine, and I have some really great clients. I work with a lot of museum stores and design showrooms, and they’re amazing to work with. But if I want to go for a walk in the park for a few hours, or go to the Met, I can.
You can get inspiration in the middle of the day if you want it.
Yes. I work hard, but I don’t always have to work hard when I don’t feel like it. I have my own schedule. I don’t like being in one place for eight hours. I feel trapped. I like to be able to follow my curiosity, and I like that I don’t have to go talk to somebody and say, “Hey, what about this?” I can just do it. I’ve built my career on having the freedom to experiment. I have a sculpture that’s in the Smithsonian, and I was in a show in 2012. It was called “40 Under 40,” and it was at the Renwick Gallery. And that all happened because I had that freedom, and I was experimenting with materials.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Central Park. There’s a lot of green. I’m can look at beautiful buildings. I come here as much as I can, even in the winter. I walk.
What do you do when you’re stuck?
I go for a walk, or to a museum. I don’t really worry about it. I think the way that creativity works is that you work hard, and then sometimes you just have to leave it. And things come. Even walking around the city can be inspiring. I used to get frustrated, but I’ve learned to trust it. I think that comes with experience. The mystery of how things are made isn’t an issue, it’s what makes sense, what’s honest, what feels right.
I love that phrase, “the mystery of how things are made.” What do you mean when you say that?
When I was starting out as an architect, I would look at a building, and I would not understand at all how something was put together. After ten years of working in that business, I may not know everything, but I kind of get it. The same is true of industrial design. I’ve gone to factories, and I know what kinds of questions to ask. It’s not as intimidating. You just work within the parameters, and it’s fun. And that allows you the freedom to be more creative. I’ve been working with the same materials since 2001.
How long does it take to make a piece of jewelry?
It has evolved, and that’s because I went to a company and had them make a machine for me. In the long run, it’s cheaper, and I have control over it. I like working with the parameters—if this is possible, then what else is possible? With the machine I have now I can mix some materials, which look one way when they’re separate and a completely different way when they’re combined.
What are the materials in your necklace?
This is reflective glass thread. These other ones are things I had made for me—iridescent thread. And the stones are lapis lazuli and gemstones.
What three materials do you hope to work with in your lifetime and why?
- Diamonds. I want to play around with cutting them in different ways. They’re kind of perfect, but if you can cut them in different ways, then I could really, really play with light in a significant way.
- Gold. It’s light. It’s warm, and it can get kind of deep. And it looks like the sun. I’ve learned that I can color gold in different ways. If I’m really interested in using stones in different ways, I have to understand gold better.
- Pumice. There’s something amazingly light about it, but it has all of these dark holes inside. I’m always interested in looking for materials that you can put in commercial settings. It’s funny because I work with the pure aesthetics of things, but then I care about the things that nobody would care about at all. But I know it matters.