Modern home: CJM spotlights midcentury Jewish designers

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In 1935, when German Jewish architecture patrons William and Ilse Schiff fled Nazi Germany for San Francisco, they were forced to abandon their life’s belongings. Among them were the furniture pieces — including a dressing table with a matching toiletries set — they had commissioned Harry Rosenthal, a recent graduate of the Bauhaus school, to build for their Berlin home.

It was to the Schiffs’ great delight that a friend was able to have their beloved furniture shipped to California, and they quickly set about designing a home to accomodate it. By 1938, they had recruited the modernist architect Richard Neutra, an Austrian Jewish émigré who had designed residences for Los Angeles movie moguls, to build their American dream home in the Marina District.

Eichler model-home advertisement from the early 1960s photos/courtesy contemporary jewish museum

The Bauhaus furniture that inspired the Schiffs’ glass-walled duplex will be on view for the first time as part of the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s groundbreaking exhibition, “Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism.” On view from Thursday, April 24 to Oct. 6, the exhibition chronicles the prodigious impact that Jewish architects and designers had on the midcentury modern movement, which prized functional beauty and peaked in the 1950s.

“This is the design component of a larger story,” said Donald Albrecht, the exhibition’s guest curator. “These great designers enter the mainstream of American design just as Jews are entering the mainstream of American life.”

Screen print on linen from the late 1940s

Albrecht, 62, who serves as curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, said that while he has organized numerous midcentury modern design shows, including one for the Library of Congress on the work of Charles and Ray Eames, this is the first time he has examined the historic movement through the lens of its Jewish contributors. Indeed, said Albrecht, as with much of American cultural production — think Hollywood in its nascent years — Jews played an outsized role relative to their small numbers.

“Many were very secular and saw their Jewishness as part of their personal identity, not their professional identity,” Al-brecht explained in a phone interview. “Hitler made it part of their professional identity. If you were Jewish, you couldn’t practice design. That was not the case in the U.S.”

While some of the 35 architects and designers featured in “Designing Home” were first- or second-generation Americans born to immigrant families, many were émigrés who fled Europe in the wake of the Nazis. Most influential among them were members of the Bauhaus, the famed modernist school founded in Weimar in 1919 by German architect Walter Gropius and later labeled a “Jewish-Communist” institution by the Third Reich.

In 1933, Anni Albers, a weaver of Jewish heritage, and her non-Jewish husband, Josef Albers, were the first Baushauslers to emigrate to America. At the suggestion of architect Philip Johnson, who was then a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the couple took up faculty positions at Black Mountain College, an experimental arts school near Asheville, N.C.

Desk lamp from the 1930s

Known for her insistence on creating textiles that were meant to be displayed rather than used, and for pioneering the use of nontraditional materials in weaving — including metallic and plastic fibers — Albers was most interested in the capacity of textiles to embody the abstract compositions more common to modernist painting. Her 1949 exhibition at the MoMA marked the museum’s first solo textiles show and helped establish her as one of the best-known weavers in postwar America.

The CJM exhibition, which features more than 120 objects related to the home — from a telephone to a ceramic coffee set to book and record covers  — includes a 1959 Albers matzah holder woven in brilliant shades of gold, blue and green. Also on view is Albers’ “Sheep May Safely Graze” (1959), a decorative wall hanging on loan from the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design.

Focusing the exhibition on objects and ephemera related to the home is a first, according to the CJM’s associate curator, Lily Siegel. “There have been so many midcentury design shows, but they’ve all been very general,” said Siegel, who organized the show with Albrecht. “But to bring it into the realm of the familiar has been very exciting.”

Alarm clock from 1939

Some of the more utilitarian pieces in the show include a 1953 round Honeywell thermostat designed by New York-born industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, as well as his signature Princess Phone (1959), which features a light-up dial that doubled as a night light.

“It’s nice to include industrial design and point out the fact that people were responsible for these objects,” said Siegel. “They’re ubiquitous in homes, but nobody stops to think about them.”

The show also features architectural photographs by Julius Shulman, an American-born photographer who, like the modernist architect Neutra, was based in Los Angeles. Shulman photographed the Schiffs’ Neutra home in San Francisco, capturing the clean lines and contemporary elegance of both the house — with its luxurious roof garden — and the furniture that served as its centerpiece.

Cube-frame chair from the 1930s

Also on view are photographs of modernist homes built by Northern California real estate developer Joseph Eichler. According to Albrecht, Eichler bucked traditional suburban developments by offering glass-walled, open-plan residences to middle-class families. Many of his homes can be found in Lucas Valley in Marin County, and in Palo Alto.

Judaica pieces on view include a 1958 swirling metal menorah designed by New York-born figurative sculptor Judith Brown and a Passover set conceived as a series of glass and metal circles by sculptor and goldsmith Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert. Born in Germany, Wolpert studied at the School for Arts and Crafts in Frankfurt before immigrating to Palestine, where he taught at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and introduced Bauhaus principles to the first generation of Israeli designers.

Accompanying the sweeping exhibition is a 184-page catalog, which includes four essays on postwar assimilation by such well-known Jewish cultural historians as Jenna Weissman Joselit of George Washington University and Jeffrey Shandler, chair of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. With those essays providing the historical backdrop, Albrecht’s essay explores the six major organizations that waged an all-out promotional campaign to push modernism into the mainstream of Amer-ican architecture and design.

Thermostat from 1953

While the MoMA did the most to strengthen the Bauhaus’ influence on American design — and the attendant role of Jewish artists within it — the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn., also played a key part, according to Albrecht.

It was the Walker Art Center that in 1947 established Idea House II, a fully furnished model residence with glass-walled facades, gleaming appliances, smooth plywood furniture and built-in storage units designed by Hilde Reiss, a Bauhaus-trained German émigré and William Friedman, the center’s assistant director. The following year, Life magazine moved a family into the residence for a week and ran an article under the headline, “How Livable is a Modern House?”

This powerful network of arts, education and media organizations, which included Arts & Architecture magazine, is illustrated in “Designing Home” by a U.S. map showing the multiple interconnections between the institutions and the Jewish designers they supported. Lesser-known institutions that also took up the modernist cause include Pond Farm, an artist colony in Guerneville, founded in the 1940s by San Francisco architect Gordon Herr and his wife, the writer Jane Herr.

“On the one hand it’s a beautiful show with great design,” Albrecht said of the exhibit. “But there is an overlay of how these Jewish architects and designers entered the mainstream through these organizations.”

“Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism,” Thursday, April 24 through Oct. 6 at the CJM, 736 Mission St., S.F.


on the cover

photo/courtesy cjm

1947 Julius Shulman photograph of Palm Springs home designed by architect Richard Neutra


Rebecca Spence
Rebecca Spence

Rebecca Spence is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently at work on her first novel.