Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism

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Kaufmann House designed by Richard Neutra (Palm Springs, CA), 1947 Gelatin Silver Print. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library At The Getty Research Institute. Copyright © J. Paul Getty Trust
Upholstered Chair for Paramount Furniture, 1949 Upholstered Chair © photograph: Conner/Healy
Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism

736 Mission Street
(between 3rd and 4th st.)
San Francisco, CA 94103
April 24th, 2014 - October 6th, 2014
Opening: April 24th, 2014 11:00 AM - 8:00 PM

Daily 11 AM–5 PM, Thursday 11AM–8 PM, Closed Wednesday
landscape, modern, photography, mixed-media
$12 adults, $10 students and senior citizens with a valid ID, and $5 on Thursdays after 5pm. Youth 18 and under free.


The first exhibition to explore the Jewish contribution to Modernism

The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) 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 will feature the work of over thirty-five creative professionals who helped spark America’s embrace of midcentury modernism, a bold new direction in design and thought.

The exhibition will highlight 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 will also examine 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 will be 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 CJM’s 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.”

The Exhibition

 With more than 120 objects, Designing Home will be 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 Lustig’s 1949 Lustig Chair made of gently curving molded plywood and metal and George Nelson’s 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 Neutra’s 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 will be dedicated to examples of Judaica designed by well-known designers. Here examples of modernist Jewish ritual objects, such as Judith Brown’s 1958 Menorah, Victor Reis’ Mezuzah, and Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert’s stylish Seder Plate are on view.

Spotlights on significant architecture from the era are presented throughout the galleries including areas dedicated to Joseph Eichler’s designs and the Walker Art Center’s 1947 Idea House. The contributions of influential entities such as the Walker Art Center, New York’s Museum of Modern Art,  Arts & Architecture magazine, Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Chicago’s 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 nation’s most trendsetting retail environments, are illustrated in more detail through an illustrated timeline within the exhibition.

A screening room illuminates Hollywood’s 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 will be 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 Chicago’s 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 York’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 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 connotations—an 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 nation’s fascination with new materials and technologies—innovations 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 nation’s 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 magazine’s 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.”

Guest Curator Donald Albrecht

 Donald Albrecht is the Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of the City of New York as well as an independent curator. Albrecht has curated exhibitions that have ranged from overviews of cultural trends—including World War II and the American Dream and Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design for the National Building Museum, the National Design Triennial for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and Paris/NewYork: Design Fashion Culture, 1925–1940 for the Museum of the City of New York—to profiles of individual design firms and artists—such as The Work of Charles and Ray Eames for the Library of Congress and Vitra Design Museum, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future for the Finnish Cultural Institute, the Museum of Finnish Architecture, and the National Building Museum, and The High Style of Dorothy Draper for the Museum of the City of New York. 

Albrecht’s catalogs have garnered numerous awards, including the Society of Architectural Historians’ Best Exhibition Catalogue for the Eero Saarinen and the Eames catalogs. Albrecht has also contributed essays to a number of books about architecture and design, including The Glass House: Pairings and California Design: The Legacy of West Coast Craft and Style to monographs on Andree Putman, Michael Gabellini, and 1100 Architect, and has written extensively about the relationship between architecture and film, starting with his seminal book, Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies. Albrecht lectures frequently about architecture and design. He is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.


Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism is accompanied by a full color comprehensive exhibition catalog published by The CJM that includes an essay by Guest Curator Donald Albrecht, a fully illustrated exhibition checklist, biographies on all of the designers, and a reader featuring four key texts published by distinguished authors and historians—“Home means Haym,” by Jenna Weissman Joselit, “Acceptance and Assimilation: Jews in 1950s American Popular Culture,” and “The ‘Christianization’ of Israel and Jews in 1950s America,” by Michelle Mart, and “Di Toyre Fun Skhoyre, or, I Shop, Therefore I Am: The Consumer Cultures of American Jews,” by Jeffrey Shandler. The catalog will be available in The CJM’s Museum Store and online.

Museum Store

The Museum Store will be offering an extensive collection of midcentury Jewish designer and architect monographs, highlighting the midcentury Californian experience. Colorfully illustrated children’s books by Leo Lionni, Paul and Ann Rand, and Saul Bass will also be featured. The Store will be creating a midcentury design domestic experience, complete with Eva Zeisel ceramics, Cylinda Line Barware by Arne Jacobsen, and Russel Wright American Modern dinnerware by Bauer Pottery. Midcentury design gifts will also be offered, including children’s toys, the jewelry of Anni Albers, Saul Bass movie posters, and CDs and DVDs from the era.

Exhibition Credits

Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Major sponsorship for this exhibition is provided by Osterweis Capital Management, The Jim Joseph Foundation, and the Seiger Family Foundation. Patron sponsorship is provided by Alison Gelb Pincus and Mark Pincus and The Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation. Supporting sponsorship is provided by an Anonymous donor, Dana Corvin and Harris Weinberg, G2 Insurance Services, Siesel Maibach, and Barbara and Howard Wollner. Participating sponsorship is provided by Shelli Semler and Kyle Bach.

Essential support for catalog publication has been provided by Fred M. Levin and Nancy Livingston, The Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.

Media Sponsorship Provided by Dwell magazine.

Major support for The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation.

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