Annie Costello Brown

Jewelry Designer, Silverlake/LA // February 2012
Any creative endeavor is a practice so the more you do it the better you get.

Klea and I visited Annie on one of the rainiest days I’ve ever seen in Los Angeles. It came down in buckets and didn’t let up until late in the day. Annie’s house borders both the neighborhoods of Silverlake and Echo Park, and sits on an unusually steep hill (for LA) with her studio in the back. We ran along the side of the house, through the garden, rushing to avoid getting soaked, and as soon as we set foot in the studio, I felt cozy and comforted. The air smelled of leather, the lighting was warm and yellow, and Annie instantly seemed like an old friend. Because this was the first time visiting a jewelry designer we weren’t exactly sure what to expect, but Annie goes about her work much like any other artist. She is process orientated and likes to play around and experiment, pulling different components together to create each piece. Some of these components are found, and others she makes— beginning with sketches, she then creates paper cutouts and wax forms, and finally casts the designs in non-precious metals like brass. Annie comes from a background in painting and sculpture and this comes through in her work; she’s got an affinity for structural shapes, sharp angles, and negative spaces. There’s a toughness to Annie’s aesthetic— many of her pieces have an almost warrior-like feel to them, suggestive of metallic plates and scales of armor, or like talismans, imbued not only with a sense of protection, but also mystery and magic. There’s a certain toughness to Annie too, and though she’s petite and quite delicate looking, my immediate impression was that she’s no-nonsense, full of resilience and tenacity— and that she definitely wouldn’t go down without a fight.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I tell them I’m a designer of jewels and other accessories. I should also say I’m a business person since running a small business takes up most of my time— it’s my day job and my night job. Right before I started this, I did freelance graphic projects, art department stuff, freelance design, wardrobe for film, you name it. Before that I worked with several different companies working as assistant designer, production manager, technical designer, and I’ve also worked with factories in China and in small jewelry workshops in Bali. I’ve worked with knitwear designers and men’s accessories designers, etc….

What materials do you work with? How would you describe your aesthetic?
Right now, I don’t work with “fine” materials like gold, diamonds, and the like. I work with humble materials such as bronze, brass, glass, shells, semiprecious stones, leather, and any natural material that works with what I’m doing in the moment. There’s an aesthetic thread in the work that’s partly dictated by the materials and partly my design aesthetic— it can go from organic, naturalistic shapes and textures to mechanical futuristic configurations. I can get very detailed and concerned with minutia to make a piece feel delicate and rich looking or I can get very graphic and bold to make a strong visual statement. Using leather allows me to add in texture whether it’s weaving it into chainmail or encasing the chain in leather or bandage wrapping belts.

There are a lot of design elements that I work with. Leather has it’s own texture and can insinuate a look that is hippy or native or equestrian, so I try to push those insinuations past expected outcomes to find new forms. I’m process orientated and like to play around with multiple components to see how I can bring them together. Because I enjoy unexpected outcomes, I don’t usually sketch things out beforehand and if I do, they are very loose sketches. I don’t want things to ever feel too familiar, the motifs and designs should be original yet comfortable to wear.

There’s a strong pragmatism to many of the designs because wearability is a top priority. I’m not interested in making Art Jewelry that looks uncomfortable to wear or out of context with fashion, but it needs to feel unique and not too commercial or trendy. My brain obsesses about how to make things that feel unique but that are also sellable— there’s a sweet spot I’m looking for. It’s fashion after all, so if it looks too familiar I tweak it until it feels fresh. I try to envision different types of women wearing my stuff, but whether it’s a businesswoman or an artist, whatevershe does her character and style is not timid or too girly or conservative. I think personal style is so dictated by your mood and is always in flux so I want to make an array of items to fit multiple personalities.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at for artistic inspiration?
Right now I’m trying to NOT look at too much. Partly, because I feel that images have lost some of their potency by sheer volume on the Internet and we are potentially overexposed and numbed-out by it. It’s so easy to slip down the rabbit-hole of blogs and other sites, but in this format visual information is flattened out on a display screen and can become dull and somewhat less potent than truly discovering something on your own. Does technology work for me or do I work for technology? I recognize that part of successfully running my business is being able to utilize technology and social media, but it can definitely get overwhelming.

That being said, I’m so happy to be working with my hands with actual material to find what I’m looking for. It’s so important for me to look away from and outside of the milieu I’m working in. To some degree I need to know what’s current in the fashion world, so I don’t become an echo chamber of whatever is going on, but I prefer to take inspiration from influences outside of fashion. I’ve always been drawn to all eras of abstract painting, textile design, sculptural forms, the craft of weaving and other fiber arts, and ancient and indigenous arts. Essentially, I’m less interested in glamorous things and more interested in anything that comes from the process of making and experimenting. I do have a few enduring fashion influences— I love androgynous looks, vintage military, Japanese designers from the 1970’s and 80’s….

Do you come from an art background?
After graduating from SFAI I did consider myself a painter and I was dedicated to making art and being a painter. I had a painting studio in Downtown LA where I started making jewelry for myself and then friends asked about it and wanted me to make them pieces. It happened organically, but I quickly recognized that jewelry was something that could generate income and to be honest, I was tired of being broke.

Also, because I had so much experience working with other designers it was kind of an easy thing for me to start doing. The art world was a scary, intimidating place for me to navigate— I had an identity crisis over how to feel comfortable selling myself as an artist. Looking back, I think I was just scared and I let the fear control my choices. But it also took tons of courage for me to walk into really great stores in New York and LA with my jewelry and have buyers look at it and potentially reject me. I was given a chance by some great stores and was also rejected, so I realize now that not everyone is going to like what you do as a creative person, but some will.

What are your biggest work challenges and how do you deal with them? How do you navigate the business aspect of jewelry and accessories design?
I think the fashion calendar – four collections a year! – can be so stressful. Especially for small designers who do most everything themselves and don’t have a huge team or backers helping run the business. That being said, deadlines can be good because they force you to make decisions. I just wish there weren’t so many of them.

I have a small yet amazing group of women that work with me to get everything done. Everything is made here in Los Angeles, mostly in my studio. I don’t have the financial resources to expand as much as I would like, it’s all on my shoulders and times can get tough, but so far so good. I’ve never worked so hard in my life or experienced so much stress. But I can honestly say it’s worth it.

What are you most proud of?
I’m not really a “proud” person but I can say I’m proud of trusting my instincts and starting this business with virtually no seed money. I just pieced it together bit by bit with my own volition.

And while I really love what I do, I try to not take it too seriously—it’s fashion and it should be enjoyable. What is serious is how your career choices will affect other aspects of your life – so choose wisely! I’m not trying to change the world with jewelry, but I’m lucky I’m able to do something I love in this world. Maybe I can help change the world for the better through how I do this as opposed to what I’m doing.

What do you want your work to do?
Because of the materials I use, it’s not about conveying wealth or luxury it’s about contributing to the uniqueness of one’s style.
I’ve never made so much of one thing that it could ever be considered mass-produced and I really want to keep it that way.

What advice has influenced you?
Follow your obsession that way you’ll never tire of it. Keep working, even when you don’t want to. Discovery happens while working so be persistent. Any creative endeavor is a practice so the more you do it the better you get. Take great care of the money/business side of your enterprise, if you don’t it will dog you until you do.

To see more of Annie’s work: