Rehabilitating materials: hardware jewelry by Alex Reed and Anni Albers

The Black Mountain College’s location at Lake Eden near Asheville, North Carolina, physically isolated from metropolitan or cultural centers, generated a specific intensity of life. Unusually, faculty and students lived on campus and ate together in the dining hall. Neither faculty members nor students abandoned campus on weekends. On the contrary, entertainment during the weekends, like parties attended by both students and faculty, played a vital role in community life. (1) Such an environment allowed the formation of intense relationships between students and teachers, leading to the creation of outstanding collective artwork, such as Anni Albers’s and Alex Reed’s hardware jewelry.

Black Mountain student Alexander (William) Reed developed a close relationship to the Albers during the time he spent at the college. Mary Emma Harris considered him a surrogate son (2), which is also reflected in the close cooperation between Josef Albers and Reed. When Josef Albers was granted a sabbatical for the year 1940-41, Reed who had graduated in art in the spring of 1940, agreed to work as an art teacher in his absence. When Albers returned, Reed remained at the college until the summer of 1942 to work as his assistant.

As a student Reed attended Josef Albers’s design course, exploring the correlation between form and material. Through combinative exercises Albers made his students discover the “discrepancy between the physical fact and the psychic effect” (sic!) (3) of object’s surfaces when juxtaposed, modifying their perception of the materials. Reed, for example, let glass marbles appear soft by placing them in a moss-covered piece of wood. Albers design course, influencing Reed profoundly, gave the latter a new understanding of both the possibilities of combining different materials and the intrinsic quality of materials. Albers and his wife Anni valued materials for their visual effect, considering a pebble as precious as a diamond. (4)

Demonstrating that there is no hegemony among objects, Anni Albers and Alex Reed created a collection of jewelry made of washers, screws, angles, colored jacks etc. spotted in hardware stores and Five & Dime shops. They produced hardware necklaces by, for example, attaching paper clips to a sink strainer, which in turn was linked by two paper clips to a key chain or hanging bobby pins from a metal-plated ball-link chain. (5) Regarding household objects as jewelry, they invented a sort of anti-luxury jewelry, proposing a new definition of value:

From the beginning we were quite conscious of our attempt not to discriminate between materials, not to attach to them the conventional values of preciousness or commonness. In breaking through the traditional valuation we felt this to be an attempt to rehabilitate materials. We felt that our experiments perhaps could help to point out the merely transient value we attach to things, though we believe them to be permanent. (6)

The idea of working with everyday objects and composing them to jewelry was developed throughout the process by experimenting with materials, comparable to Josef Albers teaching methods:

It was not started with any clear knowledge of its possible inferences. Like any other work that has not been tried before, it took on form only by being tried. We knew the direction in which we wanted to go but not where we would end. (7)

The first stimulus to work with the world as found was given by Reed’s and Albers’s visits of archaeological excavations at the temple of Monte Alban in Mexico. The pieces of jewelry exposed there comprised gold, pearls, rock-crystal, but also shells and pebbles. But not the materials themselves exerted fascination for Albers and Reed, but rather their unusual combinations. According to Albers the compositions of precious and everyday materials emerged through a process of experimenting with the combination and interaction of materials. (8)

We saw silver beads and remembering Monte Albán combination of rock-crystal and gold, we combined onyx with silver. We made variations of this first combination and later, back in the States, we looked for materials to use. In the 5 & 10 cents stores we discovered the beauty of washers and bobbypins: Enchanted we stood before kitchen-sink stoppers and glass insulators, picture hooks and erasers. The art of Monte Albán had given us the freedom to see things detached from their use, as pure materials, worth being turned into precious objects. (9)

Due to their lack of knowledge about goldsmithery or “even the simplest metal work or stone polishing” (10) Reed and Albers used given materials as elements and linked them to a piece of jewelry, instead of reshaping them or making all parts fit a given whole.

Reed’s and Albers’s jewelry attracted America-wide interest. First exhibited in 1941 at Willard Gallery in New York City, it was shown several times in the United States such as at the MoMa exhibition “Modern Handmade Jewelry” in 1946. (11)

Notwithstanding their succesful cooperation, other projects of Albers and Reed are not known. One reason for this could be the death of Alexander Reed in 1965, rendering impossible any future projects. It is, however, more likely that it was the special, intensive atmosphere at Black Mountain College that allowed such a fruitful cooperation. Certainly, not all of the relationships between teachers and students turned out to work so well and happened to be on an equal footing, demonstrated by Buckminster Fuller and Kenneth Snelson’s quarrel about the autorship of “Early X Piece”. Regardless of whether it worked out or not, the particular environment at Black Mountain College, the close knit community of students and faculty, fostered such collaborations in the first place, which at another college, where students and faculty would have lived in a more seperated way, would not have been possible at all.

By Verena Kittel

1 See Harris, Mary W.: The arts at Black Mountain College, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998) 47.
2 Ibid. 76
3 Josef Albers in interview with Phelan Outten, cited by ibid. 78
4 Ibid. 78
5 See Benfey, Christopher: Red Brick Black Mountain White Clay. Reflection on Art, Familiy & Survival, (New York: Penguin Books, 2012) 133.
6 Anni Albers: “On Jewelry”, Talk at Black Mountain College, March 25, 1942, accessed March 25, 2015,
7 Ibid.
8 Benfey 134.
9 Albers: “On Jewelry”.
10 Ibid.
11 See exhibition press release published on September 18, 1946, accessed March 25, 2015: