Furniture designer George Nelson’s exuberant Marshmallow Sofa (above) dates from 1956
by Diane M. Bolz
Did you ever wonder about the origin of the distinctive round thermostat that regulates the temperature in your home? Or how about the pink Princess phone every teenage girl once coveted or those eye-catching images that promoted such films as The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder or Exodus? All these items, it turns out, are evidence of the vital role that Jewish architects, designers and patrons played in the development and dissemination of modernism in America. Now a major new exhibition, Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism, on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through October 6, explores and illuminates that role.
The exhibition, which features an enticing display of vintage furniture, textiles, ceramics, wallpaper, posters, photographs, household appliances, book and record covers, dinnerware and Judaica, showcases the work of more than 35 professionals whose creativity helped define the daring new direction in American design that came to be known as midcentury modernism. The show presents the work of well-known designers and architects, including George Nelson, Richard Neutra, Marcel Breuer and Henry Dreyfuss (the industrial designer who created that round Honeywell thermostat and the Princess phone), alongside that of lesser-known, but equally important, figures such as graphic designer Alex Steinweiss and textile artist Ruth Adler Schnee. Highlights include the iconic images taken by renowned photographer Julius Shulman of the 1946 Kaufmann house in Palm Springs, California. The house was designed by architect Neutra for Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann, Sr., whose trendsetting retail establishment contributed to the popularization of modernism.
Movie clips featuring modern settings and fashions, classic movie posters and the innovative film title sequences of graphic designer Saul Bass further enliven the show and spotlight Hollywood’s role in promoting modern design to the American public.
“The exhibition,” says Contemporary Jewish Museum executive director Lori Starr, “goes beyond a simple exploration of the physical objects. It is a rich story of a pivotal moment in postwar history when a visionary group of American designers and tastemakers, both newly arrived and well established, Jewish and non-Jewish, came together to convince the nation to step boldly across the threshold of a new future.”
Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss’s products (the Princess phone, c. 1959,
and the Honeywell “T86 Round” thermostat, c. 1953) were fixtures in many midcentury homes.
These talented Jewish architects, designers and artists came from diverse backgrounds. Of the American-born Jews, most were first- or second-generation Americans born to immigrant families who had fled Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Augmenting this homegrown creative resource was a wave of Jewish émigrés that came from Europe around the time of World War I. Attracted to modernity as a way to escape a past tainted by anti-Semitism, exclusion and persecution, these émigrés were eager to seize the promise of opportunity this country offered. Architects and designers such as Neutra, Rudolph Schindler and Paul Frankl came from the sophisticated city of Vienna and settled in Los Angeles, where forward-looking Jewish film moguls would commission modern houses. Los Angeles, a city without a firmly entrenched aesthetic, offered an atmosphere open to the proliferation of modernism. Most important to the postwar American design landscape was the group of architects and designers who came in the 1930s, fleeing Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The most influential and renowned of these artists came from the Bauhaus, the famous German school founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius and noted for its “less-is-more” aesthetic.
The organization that did the most to reinforce the Bauhaus’s influence on American design, and the role of Jewish artists associated with it, was New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). With exhibitions such as Bauhaus 1919-1928, Modern Art in Your Life, and a one-person textile show devoted to the work of Anni Albers, as well as its Good Design exhibitions program and a series of full-scale demonstration houses built in its garden, MOMA actively promoted modernism.
Like MOMA, several influential arts and educational organizations, publications and artist communities played key roles in the development of midcentury modernism in postwar America. They also helped many Jewish architects and designers succeed in the United States by hiring them as faculty members or showcasing their work. Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center founded a program called Idea House in 1941. Its Idea House II, designed by Hilde Reiss and William Friedman, opened in 1947, capitalizing on the nation’s fascination with new materials and technologies with its glass-walled façades, slick appliances, smooth plywood furniture and built-in storage units. The Walker hired Reiss as the curator of its Everyday Art Gallery and editor of its influential magazine Everyday Art Quarterly: A Guide to Well Designed Products. Reiss thus became one of the nation’s leading promoters of modernism.
The masterful 1947 Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, California, was designed by architect Richard Neutra and artfully captured in the iconic image (above) of photographer Julius Shulman. Saul Bass’s bold graphic designs advertised such films as The Man with the Golden Arm (below).
The Los Angeles-based magazine Arts & Architecture hired accomplished architectural photographers like Shulman and talented graphic designers like Alvin Lustig to develop its distinctive look. The magazine’s landmark Case Study House Program, begun in 1945, resulted in the design of 36 modern prototype homes, many built in Los Angeles. Art colonies such as Pond Farm near Guerneville, California, and institutions such as Black Mountain College in North Carolina and the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago also furthered the reach of modernism.
Through these institutions, writes the exhibition’s guest curator Donald Albrecht, a nationally noted curator of architecture and design based in New York, “Jewish architects and designers, both American and foreign born, entered the mainstream of American architecture and design.” As Berlin-born metalsmith Victor S. Ries, who was one of the first artist-teachers at the Pond Farm school/artist colony, put it, “We were not Jews at Pond Farm, we were artists.”
So why did Jewish architects and designers gravitate to modernism? One of the main reasons, says Albrecht, is that modernism was free of historical connotations, which for Jews often had negative associations. This was especially true in Europe, but affected the American scene as well. “Modernism was a way to start afresh,” he says. “It was also a way to integrate into American life, especially postwar American life, with its emphasis on the new. To be American meant to go modern.” As architect Erich Mendelsohn, who immigrated to the United States in the early 1940s, put it, accepting modern architecture made Jews “full participants in this momentous period of American history.”