Good Art HLYWD: Josh Warner’s High Precision Wonderland
Josh Warner, founder of Good Art Hollywood has been making and reimagining what jewelry can be since 1990. A proud Angeleno, he grew up shaped by his father’s obsession with all things mechanical, and with these roots began to drive his own path. A well-traveled youth took him from urban LA to rural Montana, back to Ojai and then to Venice, where, in his own words, “I went from Bret Easton Ellis to A River Runs Through It to the remnants of Dada Beatnik, into a new, hippy kind of school.”
Good Art started with a $550 sale of handmade earrings to a shop in Venice and has now grown to a full service enterprise that makes well-crafted items at scale. Josh built his own foundry in Los Angeles from scratch, including some sophisticated machines typically found in the workshops of the finest Swiss watchmakers. Welcome to the high-precision wonderland of sterling silver and 24K gold.
Jeremy Smith: Let’s dive right in and talk about what makes Good Art, good art. You’ve got this incredible intersection of craft, art, technology, and scale, which is very difficult to pull off. What drives your aesthetic?
Josh Werner: I don't think my sense of aesthetics has changed much since I was a little kid. My dad was a big influence on me in so many ways. Like clockwork, and without fail, from the time I was six months old, my dad would carry me on his shoulders to the Rose Bowl swap meet, we'd walk around and he’d pick things, or point at something and say, "There, that is good because of this. That's not so good because of that." At the end of every trip, we'd end up with, like, a wagon full of parts and slot machine casings, gears and wheels. My dad used to love to take all this shit home and spend a month rebuilding a slot machine, only to go back the next month and pick out a vending or gumball machine, and do the same. What I realized later in life, was that these were the expensive things of his childhood that were clearly out of reach for his family, but also, at the same time, admired.
When it came time for me to pick things out that I'd earned money to spend on, my aesthetics were set. A Singer sewing machine is a perfect example that sums up my aesthetics. There's a pure utility to the whole treadle while your fingers work a machine up top with your feet pumping this pedal down below, and a wheel spinning like a cam. And then it's all held in there through this beautiful cast iron lattice work that doesn't need to be aesthetic, but just was. Things are different. Things have changed. My dad's generation was the tailend of a beautiful blend of mechanical artistry, function and aesthetics all in one. Old machines are cooler looking than new machines. A little 3D printer... honestly, they're so ugly they look like the first Apple computers. There's nothing aesthetic about them. That people can squeeze something beautiful out of them is a marvel to me. Somebody walking up to an old Singer machine and squeezing out something beautiful? Well, of course, it makes perfect sense. I mean, you'd have to be an asshole to make something ugly on a machine so beautiful.
My sense of aesthetics is quite simple. I like things that have good function, feel good and operate nicely, and at the same time, evoke an emotion and bring something out in you. I sometimes refer to a few of the absurd things that I make, because their absurdity is fun. Like a $2,000 lighter. It's ridiculous, but at the same time, fuck, it sure feels good. And I guess if you didn't care about $2k and you cared about lighters, well, lucky for you, I'm here, because I just made one.
Let’s dip back a bit into when you got started. Do you remember the moment when you decided to make the set of earrings that got this whole thing going?
I do remember. I saw a guy once with these big, chunky earrings and thought, "Well, those are rad." I said, "Oh, what's with your earrings? Those are so cool." He explained it was body piercing. I had never heard that term before at that point. He explained what it was and I said, "Okay, cool. I'm not really into all the holes everywhere right now. I just really dig those earrings." He told me a place to go, The Gauntlet, on Santa Monica in West Hollywood. I went to the place after work one day in my little piece of shit Datsun Wagon. I said to the clerk, "I just saw these earrings, I'd love to get a pair." I got treated very poorly... I didn't know what was going on. It's like that scene in the movie where somebody who's not in-the-know walks in, and everybody laughs under their breath at him, and the kid runs out crying. Except I told the guy to go fuck himself and on the way home, bought some wire and fashioned some earrings that were basically what I was about to buy.
Actually, I want to go back even further. Let’s talk about your school in Montana?
My school in Montana was pretty rural, as you can imagine. I grew up in a town of maybe 1,200 or so, and we were 40 minutes outside of town. You’d worry more about surviving and not getting eaten by a bear than about things like where you're going to score some coke. In Montana, trouble means you've got broken bones or you're dead, you get hypothermia or whatever. It was a much more extreme environment than the city, where you're worried about just getting fucked up and breaking shit. Maybe I wasn't cognizant of it at the time, but I came out of there, after a year-and-a-half there in Montana, and grew up. I was quite able and adept at anything I tried my hand at, just because of the year-and-a-half spent utilizing whatever resources were at hand to accomplish things. We built log cabins, we built the places where we lived. We had to chop wood for wood burning stoves so we didn't die in the winter. I just came out of there different and able.
And here you are! I love the cap bomb. Where did that even come from?
I don't believe in design by committee. I don't believe in mob rule. I think in any activity, it's going to be better to have a captain. Somebody who says, "Well, we're going here." Then everybody gets in line, and you go. Otherwise, you end up with a bunch of people saying, "Well, we're going here." And they're all pointing their fingers in different directions. So, that being said, I have so many people around me, who, with love, want me to do things. And every once in a blue moon, somebody will say, "Oh, my God, you should do one of these." And for every hundred of those that come in, there's usually only one or two that are worth any sort of consideration. So, I do my best to not be a dick, and just politely say, "Okay, thanks. Oh, that's such a good idea."
One day, a friend of mine, Zip Stevenson, says to me, “You should make a cap bomb." And it resonated immediately, because I remembered my brother had one. It was one of those things that I probably wasn't allowed to touch, because it was my brother’s and... it exploded. Well, I am allowed now, and that was the inspiration for it.
What are you most excited about releasing next?
Remember the lock and chain that Sid Vicious used to wear? One of the most iconic pieces of jewelry in the world ever was not even a piece of jewelry, right? I don't know if that dichotomy is lost on a lot of people, or maybe just not acknowledged, but to me it's tremendously profound because I tend to not think of what I do as making jewelry. I've seen the actual one, held and examined it, and that was probably 10 years ago or more at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas. I was very lucky to get to fuck around with it for a short minute. And I decided then, fuck, I'm gonna make one of these someday.
About two years ago, I started working on a chain, like the curb chain, but something different from anything I've done before, a couple of slight little differences, a nice, wide, long link, something that flows nicely, has a very utilitarian vibe. The chain is done, and I'm almost done with the lock.
One of the things I'm planning to do is I'm gonna sell this chain by the inch. You come see us, and say, "Well I want one for my wrist, and for my wrist I'm gonna need a seven-and-a-half-inch chain, and then the lock, and I got a bracelet." And you can lock the fucker on you and you can put the key on a necklace or in your pocket, you can shove it up your ass, or you can throw it away. Sorry, are we still being recorded? Imagine you go in and you say, "I love that, I want one for my wrist, and my wrist is different from somebody else's wrist." So you order it by the inch, and you put the lock on and you put the key around your neck, and now you've got your own version of it for your wrist. Or I want one for my neck, except I'm a big guy, so I want it to look like it did on Sid Vicious and hang a little lower. So I need a little extra length. Buying it by the inch and buying it separately, you kind of make your own kit and there's a required engagement. You have to do this.
And it's not like it's asking a lot of somebody. But I think, in this day and age, people and the things they have are getting more and more detached: not knowing where they're made, how they're made, what they come from, or why one thing's expensive and another's not. I think this is a great, new kind of thing, for me anyway, and we're kinda forcing somebody to play a little bit, to have some fun.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 Juxtapoz