Designs On The Modern Home
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Designs On The Modern Home

How Jewish designers helped create the ‘Mad Men’ style of modernism.

Thanks in part to the popular television show “Mad Men,” a new generation has fallen in love with mid-century modernist design. An exhibit now on view at The Museum of Jewish Heritage called “Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism” is the first show of its kind to recognize Jews’ accomplishments and contributions to the design style that swept the nation during this “Mad Men” era. It explores the impact Jewish designers had in shaping the streamlined, less-is-more aesthetic in the United States. Not only a “who’s who” of important immigrant and first-generation Jewish designers, the exhibit also acknowledges the importance of the institutions that fostered their creativity.

“Designing Home” first opened at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum and was guest-curated by Donald Albrecht. It features 34 artists, ranging in discipline and renown, from the Bauhaus weaver Anni Albers to architect and designer George Nelson to graphic designer Paul Rand. (Incidentally, Albrecht also curated a monographic show about Rand that is currently on view at The Museum of the City of New York, where Albrecht is curator for architecture and design.)

In “Designing Home,” Albrecht, who is not Jewish, tells the story of the American domestic landscape through modernist residential architecture, furnishings, house wares and graphic design that are presented in their social and cultural context from the 1930s until the 1960s. This period saw designers working directly with the media to promote modernism as a way of life, and instill the idea that good design is for everyone. Jewish consumers bought modernist objects as a way of assimilating into American culture, since they were new and free of the Old World. Modernism was a means of absorption into the mainstream, and the Jewish middle class was in a period of ascendancy, determined to integrate. “America then was a ‘melting pot’ not a ‘mosaic.’ People strove to fit in, assimilate, conform,” noted Albrecht in a phone interview with The Jewish Week.

As Jeffrey Shandler puts it in his essay, “Di Toyre Fun Skhoyre, or, I shop, Therefore I Am: The Consumer Cultures of American Jews,” which is featured in the exhibition catalog, “American Jewish consumer culture becomes even more expansive in the community’s extensive embourgeoisement during the post-World War II years.”

The artists featured in “Designing the Modern Home” straddle the immigrant experience. Most of the parents of the American-born artists arrived to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “They often worked as grocers or in the fashion industry, which was good visual training for their children,” said Albrecht.

Among the foreign-born artists, many were architects and designers who took refuge in America in the years before and during the Holocaust. The Third Reich considered much of modernism to be “degenerate.”

Many Jewish artists here were supported by a network of six institutions throughout the United States, among them The Museum of Modern Art, Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and The Institute of Design in Chicago, which gave them a chance to excel and fostered their creativity while other institutions openly discriminated against Jews. These “aesthetic Ellis Islands” helped the artists enter the design world and functioned as portals into mainstream America by hiring them and displaying their art.

Emigre metalworker, sculptor, and jewelry designer Victor Ries, who taught at Pond Farm artists’ colony in California, is quoted in the catalog as saying, “We did not talk about it [the war]. What for? We were not Jews at Pond Farm, we were artists.”

The question of gender is not explored in the show, though Albrecht remarked that he “imagined that women had a much more difficult time.” Three of the female artists included in the show, Elaine Lustig Cohen, Ruth Adler Schnee, and Marguerite Wildenhain “all worked alone. The women [in the exhibit] did not work for big corporations, they were independent.”

In an email interview, Lustig Cohen observed, “I was fortunate that most of my clients were not about selling products, but more cultural institutions and building identification for architects. I never had any problem with clients about being Jewish or being a woman. I imagine that one of these reasons is that I never worked in the area of advertising but in a rather closed world of cultural institutions, and most of my clients came through recommendations.”

The pieces featured in “Designing the Modern Home” represent a range of designs that many Americans owned in their homes, such as textiles, furniture, and ceramics as well as examples of graphic and logo design.

There is Henry Dreyfuss’ pink Princess Phone from 1959 as well as his circular Honeywell wall thermostat; a frenetic textile wall hanging in the vein of Paul Klee by Adler Schnee; simple wooden dormitory furnishings by Marcel Breuer; examples of George Tscherny’s innovative advertisements for the Henry Miller furniture company; and book covers designed by Elaine Lustig Cohen and her late husband Alvin Lustig.

Not surprisingly, given the importance of the home within the Jewish tradition, the exhibit displays a number of pieces of Judaica, such as menorahs, mezuzahs, and even a luminous matzah cover woven by Albers, a commission from Lustig Cohen, showing that the ethos of modernism extended even to traditional religious objects.

“Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism” is now on view at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 36 Battery Place, in Battery Park City. (646) 437-4202, mjhnyc.org.

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