Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

Modernism is calling

Fine Arts

Princess Phone (1959) by Henry Dreyfuss, part of Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism, on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photo: Johnna Arnold
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It's not often that a matzo holder ranks as the piece de resistance of a museum exhibition, but the beautiful textile woven with teal and metallic gold threads by Anni Albers, one of the first Bauhaus adherents to emigrate here from Germany, is certainly a standout at Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism. The new exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum includes the work of more than 35 Jewish architects, designers and patrons who had a profound impact on shaping the aesthetics of American modernism. Aspects of their legacy – informality, indoor/outdoor living, and especially, well-crafted, affordable industrial design for the masses – are lasting; anyone who has spent time at Ikea or Crate and Barrel will experience deja vu in the galleries.

Many of these design professionals were American Jews born to immigrant families; others came from Europe in the 1930s, fleeing Nazi persecution and Mussolini's anti-Semitic regime in Italy, or arrived on these shores seeking greater economic opportunities. In a nice touch, a wall projection maps their intersecting networks, and how and where they cross-pollinated.

Marshmallow Sofa (1956), metal, upholstery, and paint, by George Nelson & Associates, Irving Harper, Vitra, part of Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism, on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photo: CJM-SF

The far-ranging survey, which covers the 1920s and 30s through the 1960s with an emphasis on the post-war period, brings together vintage furnishings, tableware and an array of ceramics, textiles, posters and photos, while advancing a broader parallel story of Jewish assimilation into American culture. It asserts that Jews were absorbed into the design world, where what counted was their talent, not their religious background, and that more than a few preferred not to overtly acknowledge their Jewish heritage.

Though most of these innovators may not be household names, some of their ideas and the everyday objects they crafted certainly were. Noted industrial designer and native New Yorker Henry Dreyfuss streamlined and improved the feel, look and utility of practical, user-friendly devices, several of which became ubiquitous in American households. Take the princess telephone, which any self-respecting 1960s teenage girl had on her bedside table or glued to her ear, and the unobtrusive Honeywell thermostat, a compact, circular dial with manual controls that graced the walls of the average home after its introduction in 1953. Polymath Alvin Lustig, a multi-talented, ahead-of-the-curve furniture and graphic designer who revamped Arts & Architecture magazine, created early ergonomic chairs that had the properties of abstract sculpture. A black one here, wrapped in dark fabric, is like a surreal, biomorphic form out of Dali, a curvilinear kidney shape that conforms to the body. The lesser-known Alex Steinweiss served as Columbia Records' first art director in 1939, where he's credited with introducing eye-grabbing record jackets with bold graphics and color palettes for LP albums, which up until then were sold in plain brown envelopes. A small selection of the estimated 2,500 covers he designed are on view.

Color lithograph for The Man with the Golden Arm (1956) by Saul Bass. Collection of SFMOMA, part of Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism, on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photo: CJM-SF

The exhibition, which has a spacious, minimal aesthetic these modernists would've loved, also highlights Northern California developer Joseph Eichler, and important conduits such as the Pond Farm artist colony in Guerneville; the progressive art incubator Black Mountain College; the Walker Art Center's Idea Houses (1941 & 47), which were the first functioning modern homes built by a museum; and NY's MoMA, whose influential 1938 exhibition Bauhaus 1919-1928; Modern Art in Your Life promoted modernism and launched the careers of both Jewish and non-Jewish practitioners.

Not that the above aren't interesting areas of investigation, but in a quest for diversity and inclusiveness, the show throws its net wide, sacrificing depth for breadth. Short shrift is given to architecture, and there are only sparse examples of furnishings by key players such as George Nelson. A founder of American modernism, Nelson, a Yale University-educated writer, editor and architect, ran his own independent design studio, as well as serving as Creative Director of the Herman Miller Furniture Company, a post he held for 25 years. Starting in the 1940s, he assembled leading figures in the field like Ray and Charles Eames, Donald Knorr and Isamu Noguchi, and became a dominant force behind the 20th century's most iconic modernist furniture, from clocks, lamps and benches to storage units, leather swivel chairs and couches. Only three examples of his furnishings are displayed. So where are those conference chairs we've all admired on Mad Men?

Architect Rudolf Schindler, who led the development of California modernism, is represented by a low-slung, creamy upholstered chair, a boxy geometric number with curved edges and a built-in side table. Schindler and his fellow Austrian, architect Richard Neutra, worked briefly with Frank Lloyd Wright when they came to the U.S. in the 1920s before practicing in L.A. For a spell, these fiercely competitive, visionary men and their families lived together (miraculously) in West Hollywood, a period of harmony that ended in divorce. Schindler, who designed a beach house for doctor/columnist Philip Lovell, had a falling out with Neutra when the latter scored the commission for the same client's "Health House" three years later. An embodiment of the International Style, the project marked a turning point in Neutra's career, as well as the annals of architectural history, and has appeared in films such as L.A. Confidential and Beginners. By the mid-1940s, Neutra's open, light-filled, steel-framed houses were synonymous with the Southern California style epitomized by the Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs (1946). Captured in magical black & white photographs taken by Julius Shulman, the boxy glass structure is flanked by a swimming pool, white chaise lounges are lined up on the lawn, an inviting outdoor fireplace sits on the upper story, and mountains in the distance frame a scene that evokes a latter-day Shangri-La. Go to work? You must be kidding.


Through October 6.


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