They say it’s impossible to escape your true self on the internet, so it’s fitting that the two sides to Los Angeles designer and artist Steven Shein reveal themselves so readily when he’s Googled. On the website and Facebook page for Neivz — pronounced “knives,” it’s Shein’s super-graphic, tongue-in-cheek line of laser-cut Plexi and wood bangles, cuffs, necklaces, and rings — there are advertisements for “New Jewelz!!!” and rabid fans professing their love for the brand. (“Thanks SO much again. totally AWESOME! Xx.”) But on the website for Steven Shein, designer and artist, a sophisticated portfolio of furniture and sculpture unfolds, one that’s often as colorful, if more subdued, than his jewelry. “The internet’s been a bit of a double-edged sword for me,” says Shein, who spent the first decade of his life in South Africa but shows no trace of that country’s accent in his Southern California tenor. We’re standing inside a former glass factory in Boyle Heights that’s become the studio Shein shares with three other artists. “When I’m asked to do a project, they often expect me to come up with something like this,” he says, gesturing to a trestle table topped with his latest sartorial creations. “It can be sort of limiting.”
And yet it was a relatively natural progression that led this former philosophy major — a guy who says things like “I’m interested in interiority and notions of how the body relates to space” — to end up creating necklaces emblazoned with the phrases “WTF WHO’S PAYING FOR THESE DRINKS” and “NO YOU CANNOT HAVE MY NUMBER.” After switching his major from philosophy to sculpture at UC-Santa Barbara, Shein says, he’d planned to go to graduate school to study art. “But my very concerned Jewish immigrant parents wanted me to be a lawyer, a doctor, or an architect,” he explains. “I acquiesced and went to Art Center for architecture.” Rather than making maquettes on the school’s laser cutter, however, he began experimenting with more wearable architecture — hard-to-make bangles that he soon realized could make a killing in Los Angeles. “I’m probably the least fashion-y person in the fashion business, and I had no idea how much designer jewelry cost at the time,” Shein says. “But my roommate was from L.A., knew all the buyers, and started getting celebrities to wear my stuff, and it exploded from there. It’s all totally market-driven — an exercise in capitalism.” In other words, if the owner of L.A.’s Kitson told him to make jewelry with hearts and ice cream, he made jewelry with hearts and ice cream — and it sold. “At first I was concerned about not being able to be taken seriously in any other endeavor because of the jewelry,” Shein says.
But the truth is, Shein’s actually well on his way to critical acclaim for the art and design side of his business, which he hopes to show in galleries or at furniture fairs, or both. Earlier this year, he collaborated with the L.A. boutique TenOverSix on a series of pop-art pins and plywood sculptures, and today marks the opening of a group show he’s in at the New York gallery Volume Black. Sharing a studio facility with other local artists certainly doesn’t hurt: “You never know who may come by,” Shein says. He recently took time out to show us around the space, and to reflect on the metaphysical space he’s in, too: “somewhere between my capitalist tendencies, my creative tendencies, and my varying abilities to deal with reality.”