SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- The Contemporary Jewish Museum
presents Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism, the first major exhibition to explore the role of Jewish architects, designers, and patrons in the formation of a new American domestic landscape during the post WW II decades of the twentieth century. Brimming with a dazzling array of vintage furnishings, textiles, wallpapers, ceramics, posters, dinnerware, photographs, and more, Designing Home features the work of over thirty-five creative professionals who helped spark Americas embrace of midcentury modernism, a bold new direction in design and thought.
The exhibition highlights the essential contributions of both well-known designers and architects, among them Anni Albers, George Nelson, and Richard Neutra; as well as others whose fascinating life stories and important contribution have received much less critical attention, such as Ruth Adler Schnee, Marguerite Wildenhain, and Alex Steinweiss. Designing Home also examines significant patrons, merchants, and media figures who helped disseminate the midcentury modern aesthetic and worldview to a broad audience.
Donald Albrecht, a nationally noted curator of architecture and design based in New York, is the Guest Curator for the exhibition, which is accompanied by a fully illustrated color catalog.
The CJM is thrilled to be working with Donald Albrecht on this first ever exploration of the Jewish role in the history of modern architecture and design, says Lori Starr, The CJMs Executive Director. Designing Home 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.
With more than 120 objects, Designing Home has been organized around five key areas.
The first features furniture and products as well as textiles, ceramics, and graphics. Here visitors can see original pieces ranging from Alvin Lustigs 1949 Lustig Chair made of gently curving molded plywood and metal and George Nelsons iconic 1956 Marshmallow Sofa to Henry Dreyfuss pink Princess Phone and his Honeywell Thermostat. Textiles include Anni Albers 1959 wall hanging Sheep May Safely Graze and examples of the work of Trude Guermonprez and Ruth Adler Schnee among others. Vases by Gertrud and Otto Natzler and Marguerite Wildenhain as well as tableware by Ernest Sohn and Belle Kogan are featured amongst many examples of decorative and functional ceramics. A variety of book and record covers by designers such as Alex Steinweiss, Paul Rand, and Elaine Lustig Cohen are also on view. These pieces are presented within an immersive environment of life-sized photographs of period home interiors.
The second gallery features original furnishings by Bauhaus architect Harry Rosenthal from Richard Neutras 1938 Schiff House, located in the Marina district of San Francisco. The furniture was commissioned by Dr. and Mrs. William Schiff in Berlin and was brought to San Francisco; Neutra was asked to design the house for the furniture. Eventually the complete set was given as a gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in the 1970s. Select pieces, on loan from SFMOMA, will be on view. This is the first time the Schiff House furniture has been shown to the public.
A small gallery has been dedicated to examples of Judaica designed by well-known designers. Here examples of modernist Jewish ritual objects, such as Judith Browns 1958 Menorah, Victor Reis Mezuzah, and Ludwig Yehuda Wolperts stylish Seder Plate are on view.
Spotlights on significant architecture from the era are presented throughout the galleries including areas dedicated to Joseph Eichlers designs and the Walker Art Centers 1947 Idea House. The contributions of influential entities such as the Walker Art Center, New Yorks Museum of Modern Art, Arts & Architecture magazine, Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Chicagos Institute of Design, and Pond Farm in Guerneville, CA, as well as those of individual patron and merchant tastemakers like Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., the son of Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann, Sr. whose store was one of the nations most trendsetting retail environments, are illustrated in more detail through an illustrated timeline within the exhibition.
A screening room illuminates Hollywoods role in promoting modern design to the American public. Movie clips featuring modern settings and fashion, vintage commercials, and illustrated title sequences by such luminaries as Saul Bass are featured. Bass well-known movie poster designs are also a highlight of this gallery.
Jews and Midcentury Modernism: A Story of Assimilation and Innovation
The roster of talented Jewish architects and designers in America came from diverse backgrounds, bringing the perspectives of both Americans and Europeans to shape the midcentury modern American home. Of the American-born Jews, most, like Alex Steinweiss and Paul Rand, were first- or second-generation Americans born to immigrant families, eager to leave behind the Old World and embrace the contemporary manners of the New World.
Adding to this pool of homegrown talent came a flood of Jewish émigrés from Europe, attracted to modernity as a way to move beyond a past marked by anti-Semitic exclusion and persecution. Some brought with them new ideas for the domestic environment around the time of World War I. Architects and designers like Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and Paul Frankl came from cosmopolitan Vienna and settled in Los Angeles where adventurous Jewish movie moguls would commission modern houses. Even more important to the postwar American design scene was the wave of architects and designers who came in the 1930s, fleeing Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The most influential and prominent of these came from the Bauhaus, the famous German design school founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius.
Joseph Albers and his wife, Anni, a weaver who was of Jewish heritage, were the first Bauhauslers to move to America, and they took up faculty positions at the famed, art-centered Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. The Albers were followed by more Bauhauslers such as architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Gropius himself, as well as other designers and artists of Jewish heritage, including weaver Marli Ehrmann, architect Marcel Breuer, and designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. These émigrés spread the influence of the Bauhaus across America, transforming it to suit American capitalist conditions and circumstances as they produced innovative work and took up influential teaching positions at places like Chicagos Institute of Design (originally the New Bauhaus).
No single organization did as much to strengthen the Bauhaus influence on American design, and the role of Jewish artists within it, as New Yorks Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). With exhibitions such as Bauhaus 19191928; Modern Art in Your Life; and a one-person textile show devoted to Anni Albers, as well as its Good Design program and series of full scale demonstration houses built in its garden, MoMA aggressively promoted modernism with a strong emphasis on products for the home. MoMA purposefully focused on modernism as a style, and by doing so, deflected criticism of the Bauhaus being overly Jewish-Communist, successfully de-coupling it from broader political or social connotationsan essential condition for its wider acceptance by American corporate leaders and middle-class homeowners alike.
Like MoMA, several key cultural entities, publications, and artist communities played a leading role in promoting midcentury modernism in postwar America. The Walker Art Center launched a program called Idea House in 1941. Idea House II, designed by Hilde Reiss and William Friedman, opened in 1947. It was a fully furnished residence with glass-walled facades, gleaming appliances, smooth plywood furniture, and built-in storage units that captured the nations fascination with new materials and technologiesinnovations that were affordable in the postwar economic boom. 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 became one of the nations leading promoters of modernism, with many Jewish designers participating in all her efforts.
To sell the idea of modern home design to the public, the magazine Arts and Architecture employed talented graphic designers like Alvin Lustig to develop its look and feel and accomplished architectural photographers like Julius Shulman. Within the pages of this magazine, readers learned about émigré artists and art colonies like Pond Farm near Guerneville, CA, the brainchild of San Francisco architect Gordon Herr and his wife. Ceramicist Marguerite Wildenhain, weaver Trude Guermonprez, and metal artist Victor Ries worked and lived at Pond Farm. The magazines landmark Case Study House Program, launched in 1945, resulted in the design of thirty-six modern prototype homes, many built in Los Angeles.
So successful were these efforts by American cultural, social, and educational organizations in integrating Jews into the mainstream of American modern design that by 1961 noted Jewish architect Percival Goodman could assert that in the United States the centuries-old line dividing people by race and religion had been replaced by a new boundary between a culturally progressive avant-garde and a retrograde rearguard. Avant-garde, Goodman noted, belongs neither to Gentile nor Jew, but is the plight of everybody who must rebel in order to breathe again, and in that number there are numerous Jews.