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There are little piles of beads on the floor of I. Ronni Kappos’ bedroom. They are fastidiously segregated, by size and color and shape, into grids in clear plastic trays, like a mathematician’s game of infinite ticktacktoe. “I wake up every morning and feel love for these beads,” she says. “I love their smooth superflatness, their vibrant color.” A tight phalanx of necklaces in progress is laid out on her desk. “I love these tablet-sized beads. I love these little Chiclet beads.” She caresses a small, flat bead that looks like a pink Tylenol. Six years ago, Kappos was an art-history student stringing necklaces as a hobby. But eventually the beads took over. Friends, friends of friends (and now the cast of Friends) loved her work so much that she’s recently quit her day job to go into jewelry making full time.
In person, Kappos is an angular slip of a girl in jeans and flip-flops, both silly and intense. When she was a kid, she says, she and her identical-twin sister used to pretend to be squirrels. That’s cute, you think, and strange. But then it fits.
Necklaces are the core of her collection, and they are deceptively simple. They’re sweet. Elegant. Minimal. A little like Tetris, a lot like DNA. Beads are arranged into larger configurations — nine multicolored diamond beads into one big diamond, or a dozen baby capsules into one big capsule — all knotted together onto a single, impossibly thin strand of silk. “There’s something to having these complicated structures with one string running through, holding it all together,” she says, gently nudging a wayward Chiclet 2 millimeters back into alignment. She is, when it comes down to it, a skilled craftsman, an artist-engineer on the micro scale. “Each piece is a little engineering feat. Each bead is double- or triple-drilled, so you can build interesting shapes. It’s almost like constructing a building, or solving a puzzle.” Her pieces are a graphic designer’s dream. Partly it’s her retro yet modern color palette — cherry reds, pinks, bright peacock and cerulean blues, milky whites and deep, earthy browns skimming a thin hairline of red or chocolate. And partly it’s her pared-down sense of geometry. With beaded jewelry, it’s all about arrangement. Kappos’ bead structures are as thoughtful as those marking out prayers on a rosary.
Her necklaces are evocative: One looks like a lollipop. Another looks like a toy model of the solar system — for that one she envisioned bright spots of color hovering around a woman’s collarbone. And they all look like luscious, just-licked candy — mint lozenges, red-hots, Good & Plenty, licorice, pastilles. She has unofficial names for many of her designs, like “the Sandwich necklace” or “the Molecule series.” Last season, she made a line (“Ties and Collars”) inspired by Girl Scout collars and men’s neckties that seemed to abstract the essence of each of those items into two-dimensional flat blocks of color. They’re serious yet playful. Did she say squirrel?
But wait, dig even deeper: The beads themselves have history. Kappos first fell for them at a local bead store, then tracked them down to a source in Germany. The same girl who’ll sit for hours pushing tiny beads around on a table also has a scholar’s tenacity. These beads are dead-stock vintage glass from the 1920s and ’30s. The company that originally manufactured them shut down shortly after World War II. “They opened up this factory and discovered huge crates of beads. Each time they open up a new crate, they never know what’s going to be inside. Sometimes you have a true favorite and then . . . it’s gone.” Modern beads don’t do it for her. They have seams around the edges. The colors aren’t as vibrant. But the limited supply raises the question: Does she ever worry about the beads running out? “People ask me that all the time,” she sighs ever so slightly, “but if they did run out, I would just move on to something else. It took me a while to realize it, but it’s not just the beads. There’s also me.”
I. Ronni Kappos is available at Barneys New York, 9570 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 276-4400; MOCA at California Plaza, 250 S. Grand St., downtown, (213) 626-6222; MOCA Museum Shop, 2447 Main St., Santa Monica, (310) 396-9833; Steinberg & Sons, 4712 Franklin Ave., Los Feliz, (323) 660-0294; or check outwww.irkjewelry.com.