When the renovated Contemporary Arts Center opened its doors on Camp Street in 1990, works by a select cadre of prominent artists were designed as part of the space.
There were elements by glass master Gene Koss, multi-media artist Steve Sweet, and — lighting up the entrance — oversized sconces by designer Mario Villa. The sconces — featuring cast-metal palm fronds and a mix of burnished metal pieces — exemplified the signature style that made Villa’s furniture and sculpture “must haves” for well-appointed interiors.
Almost 25 years later, Villa is still at it, creating extraordinary jewelry — now on exhibit at Longue Vue House and Gardens through Dec. 31 — from designs rooted in the anthropology he studied before earning his master’s degree in architecture from Tulane University.
In fact, though he’s much better known for his furniture and sculpture, Villa has been designing jewelry professionally for 25 years.
“People do not know it because I was not designing under my own name,” Villa said. “I designed for a French international company for 15 years, but I have been designing under my own name for the past ten.”
Those familiar with Villa’s classically inspired furniture and sculpture will instantly recognize those themes coursing through the design of his brooches, earrings and necklaces.
“All that I studied, it left me with a love of beautiful things,” he said. “I have been focusing on the Hellenistic and the Roman eras, and I have designed Byzantine jewelry. I have just barely begun to explore the Renaissance.”
The jewelry designs generally center on either cast metal pieces — for which Villa sculpts the master — or elements like Roman or Greek coins.
Some have glass intaglios at the heart, perhaps depicting the head of a Roman warrior or a bust of Napoleon in profile. Medallions may feature images of gods and goddesses in bas relief, and may be cast in silver, gold or vermeil. All pieces include a generous number of semi-precious gems such as citrine, amethyst, lapis, yellow jade and pearls.
Villa credits another well-known jewelry designer, Mignon Faget, with helping him figure out some of the logistical aspects of producing his jewelry in multiples once he went out on his own.
“I was making every single piece by hand, myself, and Mignon asked me, ‘Are you crazy?’ Then she introduced me to someone in New York who could make the molds. Production became much easier after that,” Villa said.
Although Villa has lived in the United States for more than 40 years, he speaks with the thick Spanish accent he brought with him when he moved here from his native Nicaragua. Ties with his homeland remain strong: He estimates he has spent about half of his time there recently, tending to family matters.
“It means I go back and forth all the time,” he explained. “I lose track of people.”
Perhaps, but people haven’t lost track of Villa. The goods he once displayed at his eponymous gallery on Magazine Street remain available through his web site, www.mariovilla.net, and collectors who are willing to part with pieces occasionally offer them for sale, thereby creating a robust secondary market.
“There are a number of longtime clients who collect the work,” Villa said. “I am very fortunate.”
Recently, his interior design contracts for clients in New Orleans and elsewhere have made significant demands on his time.
“I am swamped with architecture work right now — a project in the CBD I am working on for a doctor from New York. It is an old mechanic shop and is very challenging to make beautiful,” he said. “I was there until 2 a.m. last night. This afternoon, I go back.”
When the project concludes, Villa hopes to devote time to teaching art to public schoolchildren through KIDsmART, the group founded by his longtime friend, the painter Allison Stewart. In the meantime, Villa juggles his design commitments from his home/studio on Prytania Street in the Garden District where, he says, “the light is amazing.”
“I make 20 drawings there every day, and watercolors. If you want to get the line right, to nail it, you must draw,” he said. “Even Matisse worked from drawings when he made his cut-outs. When he would get confused, when it wasn’t working out, he would go back to the drawing and it would remind him of what he needed to do.”
Perhaps it is Villa’s dedication to drawing, to perfecting “the line,” that explains how one person can successfully navigate multiple artistic genres, creating jewelry, paintings, furniture, sculpture and interiors interconnected by style and spirit.
“If you can take your ideas and draw them on paper, you can design anything,” Villa said.
R. Stephanie Bruno is a regular contributor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org