Art Papers  

more from the March/April 2013 issue:

Transformational Intent:
The East River Blueway

Claire Weisz
in conversation
with Ryan Gravel

Letter From
the Guest Editor:
Susan Morgan

Greta Magnusson Grossman:
Walking Away

Text / Arianna Schioldager

My sister the architect, design fanatic, and perpetual student had never heard of Greta Magnusson Grossman. Neither had her husband, the architect. "Did she have any babies?" he asked when I encouraged them to hop on the 110 Freeway with me and visit the Grossman retrospective A Car and Some Shorts at the Pasadena Museum of California Art [October 28, 2012–February 24, 2013].

"She was married to a jazz bandleader—Billy Grossman," I said, "but to my knowledge they had no children."

"Archi-babies," he clarified, "followers. Did she teach?" I had no idea. I knew very little at that point and still have only the parts I've pieced together: my impressions of her unrefurbished works on display, the clear and naturally harmonic stroke of her hand so evident in her technical drawings, and her furniture with, as Julius Shulman called it, a "quiet calmness."1

Installation views of Greta Magnusson Grossman: A Car and Some Shorts,
Pasadena Museum of California Art, October 28, 2012–February 24, 2013
(photo: © 2013 Don Milici)

Which proved to be the exact milieu of the exhibition itself. No other soul meandered the gallery, save for the female guard wearing shoes with just enough of a heel to follow me with a click, click every time I shifted position. Even in celebratory retrospective, Greta Grossman remains an unremembered great, a pioneering figure invisible amongst the visible curves of her spindle-back lounge chair and the slender lines of her Grasshopper lamp. Archetypes of her individual thinking as a designer, they also provide socially engaging backdrops to everyday activities. The lamp ensnares the imagination of a viewer and enhances the well-being of a room. The lounge chair, with its curled arms, is a blend of modern and Victorian styles, toying with the desire for conformity and the austerity of a blunt, angular modern style. It is the prototype of a chair once found in the living room of her house on Waynecrest Drive.

The gallery's calm provided a simple showcase for furniture and other items that came alive upon viewing: cushions worn by bodies and working drawings carefully handled by Grossman. Each line and shape intentional, all danced with electricity.

Many of Grossman's designs for Glenn of California are now heralded as her most sophisticated work. She created the company's 62 Series, so named because it was considered 10 years ahead of its 1952 provenance. These designs are playful but demand to be taken seriously, and the uniquely petite proportions are at the same time surprisingly commanding. The works contain what she called "the eye's functionalism." These are elements, like the color of walls, that can make a room feel larger or smaller—elements that work without showing their processes.

Installation views of Greta Magnusson Grossman: A Car and Some Shorts,
Pasadena Museum of California Art, October 28, 2012–February 24, 2013
(photo: © 2013 Don Milici)

In the 62 Series desk, slender lacquered-metal legs are blended with ball-shaped American walnut feet and a sleek black laminate top contrasting the richness of the wood. Grossman takes ordinary materials and elevates them.

Her famed Grasshopper floor lamp and Cobra desk lamp were among the first to use bullet-shaped, directional shades, and flexible arms. They were included in the 1950 Good Design exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The reason is clear: these lamps look alive, as if stalking prey. Their asymmetrical designs give an appearance of lightness and the ability to defy gravity; the Grasshopper lamp appears ready to walk away.

Greta Magnusson Grossman, Grasshopper floor lamps (for Ralph O. Smith, Burbank, California), 1947–1948, 14 x 14 x 48 inches each (photo: Sherry Griffin; courtesy of R 20th Century)

Also defying gravity and quite striking is the 1956 house she designed for herself and Billy: a cantilevered box perched above a "problem lot" on Claircrest Drive in Beverly Hills. The Grossman home melts into the land in a way that again encapsulates "the eye's functionalism." Although this house belongs to its site, it's a building that most certainly modernized the neighborhood—an entirely "flexible" home with seven-foot-high walnut partitions treated as furnishings, which could be moved to divide the space. Grossman couldn't understand wanting to stare at one wall.

The ultimate fully designed living space, Claircrest is a house that screams, "look at my beauty and innovation" and yet also says nothing at all, blending quietly into itself. The end result reflects what Grossman once said about her furniture: "The general effect is one of mellow, golden surfaces, of lightness and airiness and internal comfort."2 It is a house that serves a function; it is also a home. It is one of Grossman's final masterpieces.

Grossman's life, however, remains a mystery. In 1940, she had emigrated from Sweden with her bandleader husband—leaving behind the stirrings of World War II and the growing desire for nothing but "sturdy pieces of bomb shelter décor"3—and landing dockside in San Francisco. Within no time she had traveled south, settled in Los Angeles, opened a shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and attracted a whirlwind of attention. She fell off the map sometime in the late 1960s, leaving behind a storied career as both designer and architect to live as a painter in Encinitas.

Greta Magnusson Grossman, left: Cobra floor lamp; middle: floor lamp with double cone; right: Grasshopper floor lamp (all for Ralph O. Smith, Burbank, California), 1947–1948 (photo: Sherry Griffin; courtesy of R 20th Century)

The details of her life all felt incongruous. There were the facts gleaned from the exhibition's placards and photographs. A business card that read: "swedish modern furniture, rugs, lamps and other home furnishings." All lowercase intentional. When it came to Hollywood, historians and aesthetes noted the attraction of such clients as Greta Garbo and Joan Fontaine to Grossman's shop on Rodeo. There was a living room designed for Nancy and Frank Sinatra in the 1940s and another, famously, for Paul Trousdale in 1946, both lauded for blending her penchant for old and new style furnishings.

She designed and built at least 16 architectural commissions, 14 in Los Angeles, 1 in San Francisco, and 1 in Sweden. Most were built on "problem lots" under 1,500 square feet with scabrous landscapes on steep hillsides that gave way to sweeping views and the lights Los Angeles is known for.

Recently, in 2012 at auction, one of her simple 1940s brass and aluminum floor lamps went for $37,500.

Here was a woman who maintained a prolific career across two continents, who brought her unique approach to Swedish modernism to California, and yet still, still she was never regarded as a commanding force. Pierre Koenig, one of the most influential architects in southern California during the modernist era, admitted he'd never even met Grossman.

As the click, click of the guard's heel followed me in circles like a pace car, and she finally informed me that it was time to leave, I couldn't help but query: why has design pioneer Greta Magnusson Grossman so long remained a footnote in the annals of midcentury modern history, even in the midst of her own revival?

Greta Magnusson Grossman, lounge chair with spindle back, prototype from the Grossman Estate, 1940–1941; unique ceramic jar with handle and spout, from the Grossman Estate, 1930s; unique stack-laminated coffee table made for the Grossman Residence, 1948 (photo by Sherry Griffin, courtesy of R 20th Century

A New City for Grossman
Los Angeles is a city of dualities: autonomous parts, impure styles, and pastel colors set against strip malls and concrete grays. The urban landscape consists of repetitive villages and sprawling residential areas separated by parks and freeways, where cars drive at lightning speeds, chasing from one end of the city to the other.

Los Angeles is a city for individuals who insist on forming their own convictions. A city that retains the seductive novelty of having a history rooted in self-invention but with little idea how to express itself. Thus it is never mistaken as a city designed as a whole.

Yet, Los Angeles in 1940 is where Grossman, a woman with an already successful career and studio in Sweden, a woman with a European modernist proclivity for a totally designed environment, chose to lay her tracks and cultivate what would prove the most successful 20 years of her fertile 40-year career.

In many ways Los Angeles was an obvious choice: creativity is born of a necessity or a void. There was a clear void—a lack of women in the industry. The necessity was Grossman's own calling —she self-professedly had "wood in [her] soul."4 At the age of 21, she undertook a woodworking apprenticeship in her hometown of Helsingborg. She was the only female in the workshop. The necessity was her need to design and grow, and since California and Los Angeles were the bedrocks of the midcentury modernist design movement, they would prove an opportune landscape for Grossman to harness her creative skill.

In other ways, it was a risk. California was a boys' club, as Esther McCoy acknowledges: "The shape of architecture in California has been largely determined by several men."5 These eminent men included Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, and Frank Lloyd Wright—but in Grossman's mind, they by no means owned the landscape they built upon.

Her study, work, and travel in Europe exposed her to the Bauhaus movement, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and a commitment to functionalism. Moving to Los Angeles, she confronted the possibility of cross-pollinating these cultures. She had the possibility to personify duality, to be on the cutting edge of new design in furniture and architecture.

While Grossman recognized that it was "often a drawback to be a woman," she also knew that she had "to be a step ahead or else."6 Los Angeles was the step ahead. The "or else" was a self-imposed challenge to meet.

Greta Magnusson Grossman, Cobra desk and floor lamps (for Ralph O. Smith, Burbank, California), 1948–1949 (photo: Sherry Griffin; courtesy of R 20th Century)

Wants Car, Pair of Shorts
In 1940, the San Francisco Examiner reported that Grossman "arrived ... with the number one objective of ‘buying a car and some shorts' as the first step toward self-Americanization."7 Beyond the playfulness of her comment, a car and some shorts implied a rhythm and a response—to both climate and transportation—as well as an adherence to the tenets of functionalism. As a designer unmoved by the welter of ascending and fading fashions, Grossman worked with a characteristic rhythm of elastic interpretation, unbound by those who came before her. The curation of the exhibit likewise exuded a rhythm, working within Grossman's own dictum as a European modernist that collections of furniture should respond to one another. Even when removed from their intended environments, there was a sleekness and warmth to each piece. Each set of house plans, each chair, even the bit of textile under glass served as testament to her idea that homes should "serve as the backgrounds for living."8

A Quiet Departure
It certainly strikes a discordant note to leave behind success as Grossman did, to trade her drafting board for an easel. Perhaps it was disillusionment with the industry itself. In all the years of her career and despite the countless times she was featured in Arts & Architecture, she was only ever credited as a designer. Never an architect.

Perhaps her determinations calcified, or perhaps there was a duality to Grossman that we will never grasp. All we have are straws as we try to determine what instigated her withdrawal. In 1949, a little less than a decade before her exit, Grossman appeared in an advertisement for noted furniture company Frank Brothers. There are nine men in the ad, notables such as Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, and George Nelson, arranged across a palette as if each were a dollop of paint. There is one woman, striking in both appearance and gender. The photo makes it clear—Greta Magnusson Grossman was always to be her own "or else" factor.

—Arianna Schioldager is a Los Angeles-based fiction writer. She is the managing editor for Optimal Fusion and contributes regularly to various lifestyle publications. She lives in the Downtown Arts District where the coffee is very expensive.

1. Shulman to Evan Snyderman, fax, 2007, in Andrea Codrington, "Greta Magnusson Grossman—A Car and Some Shorts," in Greta Magnusson Grossman, A Car and Some Shorts: One Architect's Journey from Sweden to Southern California, Evan Snyderman and Karin Åberg Waern, eds. (Stockholm: Arkitekturmuseet, 2010), 15.
2. Rose Henderson, "A Swedish Furniture Designer in America: An Interview with Greta Magnusson Grossman," American Artist 15, no. 150 (December 1951), 56.
3. "New Career Sought: Couple Arrive from Sweden," San Francisco Examiner, July 27, 1940.
4. Codrington, Greta Magnusson Grossman, 17.
5. Esther McCoy, "Roots of California Contemporary Architecture," Arts & Architecture 73 (October 1956), 14–17.
6. Codrington, Greta Magnusson Grossman, 24.
7. "New Career Sought: Couple Arrive from Sweden," San Francisco Examiner, July 27, 1940.
8. Codrington, Greta Magnusson Grossman, 58.

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