A recent exhibition of drawings by the Swedish designer and architect Greta Magnusson Grossman highlights the extraordinary career of an overlooked radical
It is well documented that postwar Modernism in California was in large part a product of the vision and ambition of European émigrés escaping everything from occupation to political small-mindedness to cultural repression. Most of the names are recognizable: Pierre Koenig, Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano, Albert Frey. But the work of one exceptional female designer has gone unnoticed until recently: Greta Magnusson Grossman.
The thumbnail biography goes like this: Swedish-born Greta Magnusson was among the first women to matriculate at Stockholm’s School of Industrial Design. After her graduation she was apprenticed in a furniture factory and won a prestigious travel scholarship, on which she met Le Corbusier and other modern masters. She also met the ‘Benny Goodman of Sweden’, Billy Grossman, whom she married in 1933. She established her own design shop – called Studio – in Stockholm (where her customers included Swedish royalty and Ingrid Bergman) and emerged as a rare female voice on the Swedish design scene at the time. In 1941 she and Grossman settled in Los Angeles, where the designer opened Magnusson–Grossman Studio on Rodeo Drive (frequented by fellow Swede, Greta Garbo) and embarked on a densely packed career of furniture and house design that, until very recently, had disappeared into a kind of wholesale obscurity – despite the fact she won two prestigious Good Design Awards from MoMA in the early 1950s and having built a clutch of distinctive houses in the canyons and hills of Los Angeles that were documented by none other than Julius Shulman. She quietly retired after her husband’s death to a house she designed in the California beach hamlet of Encinitas.
Grossman’s apparent anonymity is especially puzzling given the vast amount of press she received at the height of her California period. When she and her husband relocated to Beverly Hills, the society page of the aptly named Pacific Coast Viking heralded their arrival, as did the San Francisco Examiner, which quoted the designer as saying that her first steps towards becoming an American were going to be to ‘buy a car and some shorts’. John Entenza’s influential Arts and Architecture magazine (sponsor of the Case Study House programme) featured her work in nearly every issue between 1946 and 1960; and the lamps and furniture she designed for the American department store Barker Bros. were widely advertised and by all accounts popular.
Her houses had a delicacy about them that is missing from those of many of her counterparts. She often built on spec: buying land, designing and building a residence, furnishing it and living in it until it was sold. Many of the photographs of Grossman homes show a revolving cast of her own furniture, some of it in the mode of the mass-manufactured modern pieces she designed, but there were also heirloom pieces: a quirky spice rack that reappears over the course of several kitchens, a trunk painted with a folky Scandinavian motif and traditional Swedish pottery.
Of the commissioned houses Grossman designed, the most remarkable was the Hurley house (c. 1959) in Los Angeles. Her clients asked for, ‘a house we can die in’. Far from creating a morose response to this directive, Grossman may inadvertently have created one of the first accessible homes in the USA, complete with ramps for an ageing couple in mind. In fact one of the commissioning client still lives there today. Last year Grossman’s house on Waynecrest Drive in Los Angeles from the late 1940s, which she sold and later completed an addition for, was auctioned by Sotheby’s to a developer who pledged to save the house. In what has become a sad refrain for a number of modern masterpieces (which often sit on valuable parcels of land) it was, in fact, torn down.
California Modernism embodied the wide-open possibility of the Southland in the 1940s and ’50s. There was still space to build, vistas from hillsides were uninterrupted by the neighbours’ pools and residents weren’t preoccupied by the fear of earthquakes, fires and mudslides that has now so infected most of the greater Los Angeles area. Optimism characterized by thoughtful engineering was abundant. Charles and Ray Eames, the Case Study House programme, Rudolph Schindler and Albert Frey all built on the sense of carefree cool penetrating the mid-century Southland. But where is Grossman in this litany? However she wished to handle her legacy in her sunset years – and the evidence suggests she didn’t care for a grand exit or a long memory – her work was considerable enough for recognition for the achievements she made over the course of two very productive decades to be long overdue. Enter Evan Snyderman of R 20th Century, who has without a doubt been solely responsible for resuscitating Grossman’s reputation. After seeing a stunning Grossman desk over a decade ago, his heroic efforts in identifying the rest of her work and making it public again have resulted not only in a renewed interest in the designer but also in – finally – a complete view of her oeuvre, which without Snyderman’s tenacity could easily have been consigned to the dustbin of design history.
In autumn 2008 New York’s The Drawing Center picked up where Snyderman left off. Director Brett Littman curated a careful selection of Grossman’s technical drawings and architectural sketches from the archive Snyderman has amassed. Littman asked why industrial drawings shouldn’t be considered art, or at least considered seriously within the realm of drawing. It goes without saying that most designers and architects are handy with a pencil and can create stunning work on paper. But, Richard Meier, for one, doesn’t believe that his thousands of drawings should be considered fodder for collectors or auctions. Some gallerists who specialize in ‘architectural art’, as it were, from Max Protetch in New York to David Jameson at ArchiTech Gallery in Chicago, might disagree. Its perceived lowly status doesn’t allow for industrial drawing’s importance as a kind of social and economic history deconstructed in visual form, and as a roadmap to design history. While necessarily informational and quantitative, Grossman’s drawings are also careful considerations of line and tone, replete with corrections, strikethroughs and notes-to-self that the viewer is not typically privy to – all in the interest of a beautiful end-result. The question at the heart of ‘Greta Magnusson Grossman: Furniture and Lighting’ is not whether the drawings deserve wall space but why has it taken so long for them to get it.
‘Greta Magnusson Grossman: Furniture and Lighting’ was on display at The Drawing Center, New York, from 17 October – 6 November 2008.
First published in Issue 120