Saturday, January 9, 2016

EXHIBITION: "Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism"

The astonishing and highly recommended exhibition
Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism 
will be on view through Jan. 2016 
at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC
                             Muriel Coleman desk set                       Album covers by Alex Steinweiss,
                                                                                                 "the father of album cover design"

                    Paul Frankl "Skyscraper" cabinet               Kitchen of Eichler X-100 House  

"Much of New York's character derives from its dynamic Jewish population.
Here, where they live out of the shadow of their historic crisis, they have
changed a city, and in turn are being changed."
... "The Jewish Elan, Fortune magazine, Feb. 1960

A smorgasbord of midcentury design created by American and émigré Jewish artists is currently on display at the airy Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan. 

The exhibition highlights not only the designwork itself, but the relationship between the designers' cultural heritage and their integral position at the forefront of 20th century Modernism, a style that has proven to be enduringly popular, despite occasional fallow periods.

Visitors first encounter a constantly shifting video map that traces the routes of émigré artists who came to the United States from Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as those designers who were born in America. Nearly all were drawn to six central gathering points: New York, Chicago, Minneapolis (The Walker Arts Center), North Carolina (the Black Mountain Arts College in Asheville), Los Angeles, and California’s Bay Area. 

This map gives lively visual form to the concept of networking, which was vitally important 
to Jewish artists, many of whom were strangers in a strange land.

The exhibit begs the question of why so many Jews were and are 
so prominent in the field of design. My own take on this is twofold.

First, the decorative arts have historically loomed large in Jewish tradition, which promotes 
the ethic of Hiddur Mitzvah (the beautification of a divine commandment.) Even in ancient times, the artistic presentation of ritual objects -- menorahs, Torah covers, wine goblets, spice boxes -- held an esteemed position in Jewish practice, both in public places and within the intimacy of the home. Ceremonial objects rendered in metal, textiles, carved wood and earthenware date back as far as the First Temple in Jerusalem (built in the 1st century BC.)

Second, and perhaps more relevant to this exhibition, were the rise of America and Israel as the hubs of world Jewry after the Holocaust. The field of modern design -- which put a premium on talent, utility, commitment, and a forward-thinking spirit above religious or national affiliation -- offered Jews unprecedented opportunities to excel. In 1961, architect Percival Goodman wrote that "Avant garde belongs to neither Gentile nor Jew, but is the plight of everybody who must rebel in order to breathe again, and in that number there are numerous Jews."

°     °     °     °     °     °     °     
And now ... on with the show!

Two views of platform #1 -
with furniture by Muriel Coleman, George Nelson, Paul Frankl,
Marcel Breuer, and Alvin Lustig

     Prolific designer George Nelson's slightly zany Marshmallow Sofa, considered 
     the "most iconic of all modernist sofas" is prominently displayed. Overhead
     is his luminous Bubble Lamp. Nelson was the grandson of Russian immigrants.

     George Nelson Associates'  famous Ball Clock has been wildly popular 
since  it became available in 1949.

If you were a teenaged girl in the 1960s, you 
probably had (or coveted) one of these -- 
Henry Dreyfuss' Princess phone. "It's little ...
it's lovely ... it lights."
Dreyfuss also designed the classic "Big Ben" alarm clock (1939),
the NY Central's streamlined Mercury train (1936)
and the Polaroid SX-70 land camera (1972)

Above: a small selection of whimsical album covers by
Alex Steinweiss, acknowledged to be the inventor of the modern 
album cover. His designs were in high demand for jazz, classical and
folk music recordings, from the late 1930s to the mid 1960s.
To read more about him, see my blog posting of August 1, 2014

The "Steinweiss scrawl", invented by you-know-who

Below: A favorite of mine (both musically and visually)
Beethoven's 5th symphony, performed by the
NY Philharmonic

Above: Posters by iconic graphic artist Saul Bass
A favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder,
 he designed not only film posters but also opening title sequences and logos.

“My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning 
the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have 
an emotional resonance with it..” — Saul Bass

Below: A wall of corporate logos created by Jewish designers
The prolific Paul Rand (born Peretz Rosenbaum) designed logos for
UPS, IBM, Westinghouse, ABC, and Apple computers;
Saul Bass for AT&T, Girl Scouts of America and Kleenex, among others.

Above: Alvin and  Elaine Lustig at their home studio 
Alvin Lustig designed books and book jackets, magazines, 
furniture, and textiles; Elaine was a respected graphic artist. 
They were at the vanguard of a group of midcentury designers who 
believed in the "curative power of good design, when applied 
to all aspects of American life". 

Classic High Back Lustig chair (1949)

Muriel Coleman's deceptively simple looking desk set 
combines four different materials: wood, metal, glass and leather

This midcentury piece by textile design pioneer Ruth Adler Schnee,
entited "Construction", shows the influence of her first art teacher, 
painter Paul Klee. Schnee, whose mother had studied art at the 
Bauhaus School, fled Germany with her family right after 
Kristallnacht. Now 91, she is still creating her boldly colorful and 
futuristic designs.

"Rock Candy" (2007) by Ruth Adler Schnee
To read more about Schnee, and her recent Kresge Award, link here

And to finish up ... there's no place like (an Eichler) home!

I was intrigued by photos of houses designed and built by California real estate developer Joseph Eichler. He was a visionary who brought his social justice values into his plans for modern housing for middle-class Americans. Combining the midcentury esthetics of  airiness, use of glass and steel as construction materials,  and a seamless integration of indoor-outdoor space, his homes captured the imagination of thousands of young families who were looking for affordable yet stylish housing during the post-war boom. Eventually 11,000 "Eichlers" were built in numerous California communities.

Exterior view of Eichler's X-100 house, 1956

The X-100, named intentionally to sound ultra-space age, was described by Eichler as "an exciting exploration into future living." An article in the Wall Street Journal asserted that "the thousands of Californians who crowded into a demo model of this 'home of tomorrow' gaped at such innovations as a revolving fireplace, one entire wall of glass, a plastic skylight like a bomber bubble, two indoor gardens, electrically operated sliding doors that replace all windows, and steel-frame construction to eliminate the need for load bearing walls."

Above: Futuristic kitchen from the X-100 house
I love the burners set between the two halves of the tabletop -- 
utilitarian and attractive.

I was moved by the last line of this curatorial note:
"Eichler established a non-discrimination policy for his planned communities, 
and in 1958 he resigned from the National Association of Home Builders because
they refused to join him in making their homes available to people of any race or religion."

To read more about Eichler homes, please visit 
How "Eichlers" Brought Design to Suburbia, 
linked here.

Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism
will be on view through Jan. 2016 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC


Originally posted May 11, 2015

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