SAN FRANCISCO — A new original exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco shows that while the Jews may be an ancient people, they are also a definitively modernist one.
“Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism” is the first major exhibition to explore the role of the many Jewish architects, designers, and patrons —both American- and European-born — in the formation of a new American domestic landscape post-World War II.
Though names such as Alex Steinweiss, Ruth Adler Schnee, Henry Dreyfuss, and Saul Bass may be unfamiliar, even a cursory look at their represented objects affirms their impact. With a preference for abstraction, these designers continue to influence everyday surroundings decades after the modernist movement reached its apex. One need only go on a weekend shopping trip to the local IKEA to grasp their democratization of style.
“It is impossible to quantify Jews in modernism, but we see their impact,” Donald Albrecht, guest curator for the exhibition, tells The Times of Israel. A nationally noted New York-based curator of architecture and design, Albrecht points to implicit evidence. “Jews made up 3.5 percent of the US population after the war, but Jews were more than 3% of those working in modernism. The Jewish dimension is so strong.”
Unlike other immigrant groups, Jews did not look back to the Old Country. Referencing a 1992 book titled, “Adapting to Abundance” by Andrew R. Heinze, Albrecht explains that forward-looking modernity was embedded in the Jewish immigrant experience.
“Jews said, ‘We’re here. Let’s make the most of it!’” says Albrecht.
“Historical styles were freighted with negative connotations,” notes Albrecht. “Modernism did not have that negativity associated with it. It was a way for Jews to enter the mainstream.”
Jewish European émigrés and first and second-generation American modernist designers were not just designing for the home. They were designing their new home in the world, and they infused it with a sense of Jewish utopian idealism and progressive thought.
Indeed, although “Designing Home” includes a section devoted to the influence of modernist design on Judaica (menorahs, mezuzahs, seder plates, Torah arks, and the like), the loudest Jewish message of the exhibition is that modernism was about assimilation. The curatorial team was hard pressed to find statements by the Jewish designers pointing to the influence of their Jewish identity on their work. The European émigrés were especially grateful to be able to separate their professional identities from their ethnic and religious background.
A certain level of Anti-Semitism existed, “but Jews were welcomed as professionals in modernist groups and in the museums, even if they were seen as ‘Jewish communists,’” says CJM associate curator Lily Siegel, who worked on “Designing Home” with Albrecht. “Those with anti-Semitic leanings were willing to look beyond this because of what Jewish designers were doing for society.”
As one walks through the clean-lined, white-walled galleries, one is struck by how many examples of the Jewish-designed architecture, furniture, housewares, and even corporate logos are not only familiar, but also ubiquitous.
Take for example the Princess Phone designed in 1959 by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, who was born in New York in 1904 and died in Pasadena, California in 1972. The compact, convenient phone came in a variety of colors (pink was popular). Designed for use in the bedroom, it had a light-up dial that served as a nightlight. Anyone older than a Millennial remembers having such a phone at home.
Likewise, Dreyfuss’s Big Ben alarm clock (1939) and the Honeywell “T86 Round” thermostat (1953) bring back memories. So does his Crane Beverly sink (1952), which if not familiar from home, can at least be recalled from public bathrooms dating to the mid-20th century.
In one area of the exhibition, colorful, wittily designed record albums covers by Alex Steinweiss are displayed. It was the New York-born Steinweiss, art director at Columbia Records, who originated the paper jacket (better known as the “album cover”) that became the industry standard for packaging and protecting long-playing 33 1/3 rpm vinyl records.
Nearby are book jackets designed by New Jersey-born Elaine Lustig Cohen, who took over her husband Alvin Lustig’s graphic design firm after his death in 1955. Her work was influential in terms of her attention to typography, blend of graphic styles and break from pictorial representation.
While Dreyfuss, Steinweiss and Lustig Cohen were industrial designers, a significant portion of the other 35 or so modernists highlighted in “Designing Home” were craft artists. The difference between the two approaches is evident when comparing Ruth Adler Schnee (born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1932 and living and working now in Southfield, Michigan) and famous textile artist Anni Albers (born in Berlin in 1899 and died in Connecticut in 1994).
Adler Schnee has produced textiles with dense, complex and colorful patterns for her own commercial line, as well as for other manufacturers. Albers, on the other hand, created textiles meant only for display. One of the best-known and influential weavers in postwar America, she pioneered the use of nontraditional materials such as metallic and plastic fibers in her work. Her work was widely exhibited: Her 1949 exhibition at the MoMA was the museum’s first solo textiles show.
“Designing Home” aims to expose visitors to mid-century modern design and depict how it still surrounds them — especially in California. High-end custom modernist homes designed by famed architect Richard Neutra and photographed by celebrated modernist architecture photographer Julius Sherman, still stand in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, as do entire modernist Bay Area neighborhoods for the middle class built by Joseph Eichler.
Modernism’s ubiquity and longevity are also made obvious in a wall covered with easily recognizable corporate and brand logos (IBM, Girl Scouts, Goodwill, Kleenex and many more) designed by Paul Rand, Saul Bass and Louis Danziger.
Similarly, one is struck while watching an audiovisual presentation of Bass’ film title sequences by the immense influence his ideas continue to have on the first few minutes of contemporary movies. Before Bass, title sequences were usually a static list of credits. It was he, in his work for great directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger, who elevated the credits in to a title sequence used it to establish the tone and key themes of a film.
However, the exhibition goes deeper than aesthetics. It aims to show how Bauhaus-trained European refugees merged their vision with that of leaders of American modernism to lead America in to a post-war future filled with and reflecting machine-age optimism, openness and possibility.
This European-American cross pollination was epitomized by the Schiff Duplex, a San Francisco townhouse designed by Austrian émigré Richard Neutra in 1938 for Dr. William Schiff and his wife Ilse. The Schiffs, forced to leave Germany in 1935, wanted an appropriately modern setting for furnishings commissioned for their Berlin home from Jewish Bauhaus architect and interior designer Harry Rosenthal – some of which are on view in “Designing Home.”
‘It was about moving people toward better, cleaner living in the machine age’
“It was a propagandistic movement,” notes Siegel. “It was about moving people toward better, cleaner living in the machine age.”
At the same time, the indoctrination was tempered by what CJM director Lori Starr considers “a transportable lightness, a cheekiness” as she walks around the galleries with this reporter. “Can you see the face in Dreyfuss’ sink?” she asks, as she points to the visual arrangement of its faucet spout, cold and hot water handles, and the sink overflow.
The story “Designing Home” tells is complex and impossible to fully comprehend on a single visit to the exhibition, which continues through October 6. The show’s excellent catalogue helps complete the picture.
Designed in retro fashion and meant to resemble a book published at the height of the modernist period, the catalogue is aesthetically beautiful. Moreover, it provides useful biographical information on the mid-century designers, as well as insightful contextual essays by Albrecht and Jewish American historical and cultural experts Jeffrey Shandler, Jenna Weissman Joselit, and Michelle Mart.
The tome is the museum’s first self-published scholarly catalogue. Starr is excited about it, as she is about the other firsts represented by “Designing Home.”
“This is our first original exhibition of this magnitude, and it will be our first show to tour,” she says. “This signals the realization of the vision of CJM as an originator of new Jewish and cultural content.”