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Artist Claire Kahn On Creating Exquisite Jewelry And Global Fountains

Claire Kahn designer/Photo by ©Ira Kahn

Claire Kahn with her crochet-beaded necklaces/Photo: ©Ira Kahn

By Wendy Verlaine/May 9, 2012

There’s no need for me to elaborate a typical day for Claire Kahn. On any given day you might find her stringing a pattern for a jewelry piece, working on a translucent, hanging paper cut or absorbed in a fountain design for WET in Los Angeles where she is one of a team of designers of global water projects such as the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas and the Dubai Fountain at the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. This prolific designer has been actively using her artistic talent every day of every year since the very beginning.

“Creative talent need not be limited to a single focus.” Claire Kahn

Fountains of Bellagio/Photo: Amylia Ghani

Fountains of Bellagio/Photo: Amylia Ghani

Claire believes growing up in Palo Alto, CA in a family that practiced art as if it were as commonplace as three meals a day influenced her life choices. Her father, Matt Kahn, professer emeritis at Stanford, started teaching fine art and design at Stanford at age twenty-one.

Her mother, a skilled weaver, and father met at Cranbrook Academy of Art when Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, architect and design icons, were also there. Claire graduated from Stanford with a degree in design. One might guess with this as her family history, her path in life was calibrated at birth.

Claire Kahn's homeDuring my recent visit with Claire in her San Francisco home, her open and bright environment felt like a breath of fresh, colorful sophistication and an inadvertent lesson in art history. It’s a place where creativity is a daily practice and art is collected and valued, but not showcased.

I find a conversation with Claire is always spirited and filled with ideas and insight…

WENDY: I think one of the most fascinating things about you is that your talent is not focused on a specific medium. Do you attribute this to your upbringing?

Claire Kahn, designer

Claire planning a jewelry design

CLAIRE: I come from a world that is based on my family’s philosophical view of design. For us it’s about working in a large range of mediums and loving everything from lost wax casting, woodworking, jewelry making, typography, pottery, photography, film, metalsmithing, weaving, paper, beads, painting.

It’s about learning as intensely as you can about each medium so you can work in a range of mediums, and select from them in order to do a project effectively.

WENDY: Is this philosophy different from the way artists, designers and architects work today?

CLAIRE: I think it is very different. Now it is focused on one thing, and work is done on the computer. A lot of people don’t even know how to draw. It’s not fashionable in today’s world to be a jack-of-all-trades, or to call yourself that.

WENDY: How do you define the term “designer”?

CLAIRE: That term once meant simply to make pattern. But my father would say design is an art form that is incomplete until it is engaged. The term is so vastly used now that mechanics say they design an airplane or chefs say they’re food designers.

In the above video by USA Today, Claire explains the process she and her team
use to choreograph the Fountains of Bellagio.

: To ask what inspires you seems like an overwhelmingly complex question. So I will ask this in bits and pieces. Let’s begin with your fountain design work.  At WET you are one of a team of fountain designers?

CLAIRE: Yes. At WET for instance, the large municipal and urban fountains can only be realized with a team of numerous people. I enjoy the interaction with others who each have an expert and unique ability that they bring to the work.

WENDY: Is there a commonality between your artwork and your large scale fountain design?

CLAIRE: If you look at the heart of the fountain work I am doing for Mark Fuller, founder of WET, it is very similar to the beaded jewelry work and paper cuts that we’ll discuss later. Thousands of jets of water come together to create a single expression. It’s pattern. I define pattern as anything that has multiple units. It’s shapes that come together to create a greater whole.  It’s like architecture or dancers on a stage.

Burj Khalifa Fountain, Photo by James Sullivan

Burj Khalifa Fountain/Photo: James Sullivan

WENDY: But you’re still playing with progression, with pattern.

CLAIRE: Yes, still playing with pattern, only it’s giant. It’s the antithesis of the jewelry in scale, but somewhat related. In jewelry I’m using units one half mm in size. The Fountains of Bellagio cover a nine acre lagoon. (Claire laughs)

WENDY: Aside from being one of the team of designers, you also choreograph the fountain’s movement to music. How do you program the water to sound without making it seem like it’s dancing to the upbeat, becoming comical?

CLAIRE: It is very important not be to be literal. It’s making the movement express the sound. I choreograph the waterworks on my computer using a detailed program. It has to progress from small to large, delicate to explosive.

I do it by emphasizing the tone and crescendo of the music. Like in film, it’s a synthesis of sound and visual. That’s what these fountains do best.

Mille Fiori Paper Cut by Claire Kahn

Mille Fiori Paper Cut by Claire Kahn

WENDY: Let’s talk about your paper cuts scaled to work as everything from sliding screen room dividers to jewel-like window medallions. They are so different from your fountain work. What is it about paper that inspires you?

CLAIRE: For me, it’s about using the medium you’re working in. It’s a type of translucent paper which I love. It is something we all used when I worked at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to draw on before the use of computers.

Light filters through it so as it is cut and layered you get different values. Being able to cut each pattern within separate layers with a sharp X-acto knife inspires the search for the pattern.

WENDY: How would you define pattern in relation to your paper cuts?

CLAIRE: For me, a pattern is a product of the light and dark shadows which come through the paper, like the concentric shapes in an agate, or the spiraling shapes in a shell. It’s a natural for this medium.

Log Cabin Ink on Paper by Claire Kahn

Log Cabin Ink on Paper by Claire Kahn

WENDY: Does designing on a computer for the water designs contradict the hands-on process?

CLAIRE: I think it is difficult for designers today because the medium is the computer. That makes it difficult to flourish in that sensual activity of responding, letting the medium inspire you.

Wood Grain Paper Cut by Claire Kahn

Wood Grain Paper Cut by Claire Kahn

WENDY: What is exciting to you about progressing from light to dark, small to large on all of your projects?

CLAIRE: The transition from one color to another or one shape to another and the pattern which is born of that is exciting to me. Light to dark. Cool to warm. So in everything I do, that is going to be in there somewhere. Repeating pattern is not a constraint but a stimulus for creativity. It’s found everywhere.

WENDY: Do you like commissions, or are they an impediment to creativity?

CLAIRE: It depends on the client of course, but I always enjoyed commissions because they set up a context, a reason to inspire certain forms. It might be a 5×7 foot window (referring to her paper cuts which often hang in natural light) or a love of nature, or something more tranquil and less aggressive. All these things add up to create a program that inspires a lowly paper cut or an architectural project.

“I call myself a designer because I work based on being informed by a client’s interest, or context of place.”

WENDY: What is the difference between a designer and an artist?

CLAIRE: It’s that you are not working in a vacuum with everything coming from within you. I call myself a designer because I work based on being informed by a client’s interest, or context of a place. For me that is much more exciting.

WENDY: Where did your love of color come from?

CLAIRE: I don’t know where it came from, but I know I have it big time. Color is just the most wondrous thing on this earth. It’s just this amazing thing. It’s a blast to use it.

Claire Kahn Turquoise and Blue Necklace

Turquoise and Blue Necklace by Claire Kahn

WENDY: I notice you use a progression of color rather than an explosion of color.

CLAIRE: Different people use it differently. For me, color is a little more calculated, yet it is always changing midway, and there are always changes and surprises along the way.

WENDY: Your jewelry work is of museum quality. How do you know when to keep a design more minimal, and when do you decide to embellish a design?

CLAIRE: Fabulous stones trigger a piece. If I have opals, I will build a piece around the opals. But I will also just build a piece around pattern or progression. This thing of a lot of units coming together to make a larger whole is at the heart of everything I do. I believe in it.

WENDY: Your work is shown at Patina Gallery in Santa Fe. Were you afraid of being pigeon-holed or “branded” like many galleries require of their artists?

Garnet Necklace by Claire Kahn

Garnet Necklace by Claire Kahn

CLAIRE: Ivan and Allison, the owners of Patina Gallery, have a deep love for craftsmanship, richness of material and real beauty. They promote no compromise in their artists.

They would never ask an artist to come up with one idea simply based on it’s economic success, but rather promote exploration and freedom to develop work at one’s own pace, developing one’s own values. Creative talent need not be limited to a single focus.

WENDY: You can see Claire’s crochet-beaded necklaces at Patina Gallery August 10-September 2 in a show titled Pattern and Flow. Santa Fe’s world-famous Indian market runs in conjunction with this event.

To see more of Claire’s designs, go to her website and check out her portfolio.  Here is one more detail of her beautiful jewelry design.

Closeup of necklace by Claire Kahn

Necklace detail: glass with tourmaline


About the Author:

Wendy Verlaine, writerWendy Verlaine is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer, jewelry designer and owner of Verlaine Collections. Formerly a San Francisco art dealer, she continues to stay closely connected to the art world.

TWITTER: @VerlaineWendy

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  1. Alan Macomber says:

    Outstanding article! And an amazing designer.

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