NEW YORK — Barry Kieselstein-Cord was keen on being photographed in the very same booth where he first took Andy Warhol to dinner at Raoul’s here in the late Seventies.
Every creative mind in New York from his generation claims to have ties to Warhol, but Cord really does — Warhol was a collector of his work and a champion of his early photographs.
This story first appeared in the October 16, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Moments before having his portrait taken, Cord’s assistant delivered the very first — and unbound, to his dismay — copy of the 100-page book “Awarded,” which will accompany the artist’s photography exhibition that will run from Saturday to Nov. 3 at Eckert Fine Art Gallery in Millerton, N.Y. The show was arranged by gallerist Jane Eckert and Dragon Head LLC, and hosts include Karen Klopp, John Klopp, Pamela Taylor Yates and Eames Yates. After a two-week run, the exhibit will head off to debut at Art Basel Miami next month before continuing on a world tour.
“When you create strong design, you can send a message with what it is you create,” Cord said as he fiddled with a pair of Oliver People’s frames — crystal rims with brown lenses — debating whether he should wear or hold them in his picture.
He said the past three months of preparing for the retrospective have been laborious. Since July, Cord has sifted through an archive of more than 20,000 photographs to determine the 40 that would comprise the exhibition, crediting artist Vincent Vallarino as his mentor for the project. The retrospective spans Cord’s photographs from the “crazy Sixties, wild Seventies and decadent Eighties” to as recently as early this fall. He adds that in the past seven to eight years he’s begun to shoot digitally — and in color — for the first time.
Many of his images are rife with political messages — from gay and heterosexual and women’s rights to “our desire for a plastic life,” according to Cord. The most striking, though, is a six-photograph Cry Freedom series that includes a shot of a doll, a grenade and an acorn (which he calls an “antitotalitarian freedom statement”), a Buddha set on fire and severed hands signifying the failure of a failed national socialist regime.
“A Hard Days Night” was taken during New York City’s crack epidemic, before Rudolph Giuliani became mayor in 1994, and depicts a nightstand with a gun, alcohol and several bottles of pills. The cover photo on the book, “Fur Coat & Conchas,” features a woman in a fur coat wearing Cord’s sterling silver concha belt slung across her shoulder, standing on a rooftop overlooking the Meatpacking District years before it was gentrified.
“I love being an American and I love our freedoms. Social to economic to political changes are all reflected here,” said Cord, a third generation New Yorker who studied at Parsons School of Design, New York University and the American Craft Institute. “In the past few years, I’ve found more freedom to express myself and looked at my life in a reconstructive view.”
Not all of his work is political, though. There are plenty of portraits featuring his daughter Elizabeth Kieselstein-Cord and landscape shots taken near his farm in Duchess County in upstate New York.
His last retrospective was 13 years ago at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery and Cord is eager to talk about everything that’s happened since. He admits that “Awarded” is his vehicle to reenter the public conscious, confessing the years since 2008 have been a challenge. He hoped to merge his jewelry firm with a larger company but the deal fell through, and he’s used the past few years to “take stock” of his talents and refocus and rechannel his energies.
In his 40-year career, those energies have run the gamut from photography to jewelry (Cord started his brand in 1972 and Georg Jensen introduced his jewelry in 1973), belts, handbags, eyewear, home furnishings and helicopter design. His designs were carried at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, where his first shop-in-shop opened in 1985. He’s worked with Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis, and at the pinnacle of his career in the Nineties maintained a dozen freestanding stores bearing his name in cities like Moscow, Singapore and Jakarta, all of which were consolidated to focus on key independent retailers. He’s received several accolades for his work, including two Coty awards and a Council of Fashion Designers of America award. Cord is also a crusader for protecting artists’ rights, and in 1980 helped push for a change in copyright laws.
“I’ve put several people in jail for copyright intrusion. I believe in legitimate ownership in creativity, be it a street lamp or a piece of jewelry,” Cord said. “You couldn’t copyright a designer watch, and now you can. Fighting pirates saved my business. It was a significant victory for artists and designers.”
He circles back to the present, revealing that other than “Awarded,” he’s not currently producing anything. He does, however, express a desire to take part in licensing opportunities. He never wants to be “saddled with manufacturing responsibilities” again, and instead wants to keep his future work within the realms of design and design management.
“My vision, which still holds true today, was to build an American powerhouse luxury company based on incomparable quality produced in my own vertical organization. The matrix has changed but my vision has not,” Cord said. “I created products that intersected and cross pollinated. I’ve been advocating a lifestyle approach to brand building since the day I opened my firm’s doors. I’ve maintained that faith and my photography work is simply an extension of this concept.”