CJM Celebrates Jewish Contributions to Midcentury Modernism

by Sura Wood

A new exhibition focuses on Jewish designers’ impact on midcentury design, from architecture to tableware.

In the decades following World War II, innovative Jewish architects, designers and patrons played a pivotal role in shaping the aesthetics of American modernism, especially in the domestic sphere. That’s the premise of “Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism,” a new exhibition opening this month at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Spanning the period from the 1920s and ’30s through the 1960s, with an emphasis on the post-war era, this show brings together vintage furnishings, sleek minimalist tableware, eye-catching record and book jackets, handmade ceramics and textiles, posters and photographs that highlight the contributions of more than 35 design professionals. Many were American Jews born to immigrant families, while others had emigrated from Europe in the 1930s.

“At the time, a large percentage of modernist architects and designers were Jewish,” says guest curator Donald Albrecht. “One of the reasons for that may have been that the profession offered a way of expressing a new identity for the post-war Jewish person in America. In the design world, their Judaism was not an issue: it was their talent that was prized. A theme of this show is how these designers entered the mainstream of American architecture and design and as a result entered the mainstream of American life.”

Though the names of many of these designers may not be familiar, the everyday objects they helped create are well known. Celebrity industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, who opened a firm in his native New York in 1929, streamlined and improved the feel, look and utility of devices that became ubiquitous in American households: the princess telephone, the Honeywell thermostat and the SX-70 Polaroid Land Camera. For the latter, Dreyfuss and his staff helped reconfigure the camera, eliminating the need for batteries, reducing its size and making it lightweight and portable. An early proponent of ergonomics, Dreyfuss helped formulate products that were both functional and attractive. “He wasn’t interested purely in style,” notes Albrecht. ”More than any other designer, he made products that lasted.”

Considered one of the founders of American modernism, the highly influential Yale University-educated writer, editor and architect George Nelson established and ran his own design studio as well as serving as creative director of the Herman Miller Furniture Company. Starting in the 1940s, Nelson assembled leading figures in the field 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. (The current television series “Mad Men” incorporated Nelson’s minimalist decor in its ad agency office sets.) Several pieces developed during Nelson’s tenure at Herman Miller are on view, such as the “Marshmallow Sofa” (1956),
a classic with a metal frame and upholstered interconnected orbs that form the seat and back.

A fusion of functionality, originality and unusual roughhewn materials, Anni Albers’ “Matzoh Holder” (1950), made of jute and metallic green, blue and gold threads, is on public display for the first time. Albers, a German émigré and perhaps the most famous artist of the period, studied weaving at the Bauhaus, a German design school established in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius and later headed by Mies van der Rohe. Albers was particularly intrigued by the idea that textiles could convey the same quality, presence and formal composition as an abstract painting. (Albers and her husband, Josef, were the first Bauhausers to come to the United States.)

The Bauhaus, whose unconventional approach included melding crafts and fine arts to produce well-made, affordable design for the masses, exerted a powerful influence on the character of industrial, graphic and interior design. Rooted in hands-on workshops as opposed to classroom training, its adherents brought a cool sensibility reflected in the steel and glass, boxy style that would dominate modern American architecture and transform the corporate-built landscape. “Bauhaus 1919-1928; Modern Art in Your Life,” a major art exhibition at MOMA in New York in 1938, promoted modernism as a style and helped launch the careers of its practitioners, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in this country.

The CJM show focuses primarily on designers working in New York and Los Angeles. Viennese architect Richard Neutra, for instance, set up shop on the West Coast where he designed modern mansions for Hollywood heavyweights such as Austrian-born movie director Josef von Sternberg (“The Blue Angel”). In 1946, Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann, Sr., who, a decade earlier, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece, “Fallingwater,” hired Neutra to build the glass-walled structure in Palm Springs that became known as the “Kaufmann Desert House.” The square, airy house with huge glass windows is captured here in an elegant black and white photograph taken by Julius Shulman, a photographer for “Arts & Architecture Magazine.”

A selection of Shulman’s photographs also appears in a section of the show devoted to the story of the Schiff family, who, in the early 1930s, engaged the enigmatic European set designer and Bauhaus architect Harry Rosenthal to design furniture for their home in Berlin. Forced to emigrate, the Schiffs moved to San Francisco’s Marina district and, in 1938, hired Neutra to custom-design a simple stucco and glass house to showcase Rosenthal’s furnishings. A dressing table, a tubular steel and wood chair, a coffee table and a desk lamp are displayed on platforms surrounded by blow-ups of Shulman’s photographs of the residence.

Collaborating with film directors such as Otto Preminger, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, graphic designer Saul Bass turned arty movie credit sequences for “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and other films into an expressive storytelling art form of its own. Several of his film posters are shown here, including his famous graphic of a disembodied black arm from the ad campaign for Preminger’s “The Man with the Golden Arm,” a story of heroin addiction starring Frank Sinatra.

As part of the exhibition, the museum screens examples of Bass’s title sequences as well as old commercials and clips from movies that featured ultra-modern sets and fashions.

Apr. 24 → Oct. 6

Contemporary Jewish Museum

736 Mission, 415/655-7800