Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 25, 2017
Donald Albrecht, ed. Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism Exh. cat. San Francisco: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 2014. 185 pp.; Many color ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780991641109)
Exhibition schedule: Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, April 24–October 6, 2014; Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York, March 30, 2015–January 18, 2016

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco offered a fresh take on the popular topic of twentieth-century domestic design with its 2014 exhibition Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism, organized by the eminent curator Donald Albrecht. This exhibition is part of a spate of shows that has addressed the architecture and design of the period. An exhibition devoted to Charles and Ray Eames is currently making international rounds to various design museums—organized by the Barbican in London before moving on to Sweden and Portugal, through 2017. The press has been phenomenal, describing the “power couple” as the “ultimate examples of midcentury style,” and more largely suggesting that midcentury style itself reimagined both design and architectural space. Of course there has been no dearth of attention to the Eameses over the course of architectural history, or to midcentury modernism more generally, and, obviously, the work still excites and draws an interested crowd. The Bard Graduate Center tackled Aino Marsio-Aalto and Alvar Aalto in 2016; an Eero Saarinen show traveled the world in 2010; and in 2011, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art celebrated the state of California’s particular role in the cultivation of a midcentury modern aesthetic. Exhibitions were held in 2012 at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in North Carolina and in 2016 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, each show touting its home institution’s substantial midcentury modern collections.

What set this exhibition, and by extension its elegant book, apart from other shows concentrating on midcentury work is its specific focus on Jewish designers, artists, and architects. The project featured thirty-four individuals, some well-known and others less so, whose life and work can be tied to “six hubs across the United States that were critical in the broad dissemination of modernist design principals between the 1930s and the 1950s” (8), writes the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s Executive Director Lori Starr in the book’s foreword. The six hubs, most of which are part of the canon of modern design history, are the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Black Mountain College, North Carolina; the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Arts and Architecture magazine, Los Angeles; and Pond Farm, Guerneville, California—the latter certainly the least known of the six.

Significantly, the overall purpose of the exhibition was not merely to link the designers by their Jewishness, but instead to strongly tie their work to the spread of modernism throughout postwar America and the growth of an American-based avant-garde design culture in the 1950s, and, importantly, to consider why Jews in particular (some born in America and others either exiles or émigrés from a war-torn Europe) might have been attracted to modernism. In his essay “Avant-Garde Belongs Neither to Gentile Nor Jew,” Albrecht pointedly considers this question and argues that Jews helped create “a distinctly modern American domestic landscape” (13). Referring to the work of the historian Andrew Heinze, Albrecht writes that the strong Jewish focus on the home—for family-based observances such as Shabbat, for the placement of Judaic objects such as mezuzot on the doorposts, etc.—generated a need for a forcefully designed world that retained the symbolic power of Judaism and its rituals, but was a receptive forum for a new, clean modernism. By breaking with older, historical forms, Albrecht connects the work to larger cultural tides of assimilation that have characterized much of American Jewry since waves of Jewish immigrants came to American shores at the turn of the twentieth century. Albrecht’s essay, then, makes a strong contribution not just to modernist design history but to Jewish cultural history as well.

The book is divided into three parts. Albrecht’s essay is followed by a beautifully illustrated “Portfolio of Designers,” with brief biographies of the artists in the show and graphics specifying which of the aforementioned six hubs provided that particular designer her or his community of collaborators. The portfolio is in fact introduced by a two-page infographic entitled “Network Connections,” a clever visual clarification and illustration of which designers were centered where, and who was working with whom, again emphasizing the exhibition’s focus on these centers of activity. The final section of the book is a usefully collected selection of previously published scholarly essays that focus on postwar Jewish American culture. The renowned scholar Jeffrey Shandler’s 2010 essay on consumerism, for example, makes the case that “consumer practices are integral to Jewish culture” (137), from the purchase of books and Judaica on the one hand, to glitzy Bar Mitzvah celebrations on the other. Shandler writes that in the postwar period these tendencies were often amplified as a result of an old-world culture encountering and coming to grips with an American society full of abundance and plenty. Jenna Weissman Joselit’s “Home Sweet Haym” analyzes what objects, or furnishings, or aesthetic might make a home “tangibly Jewish.”

Of course, the specter that hovers over the book and the exhibition that cannot be ignored is why there were so many immigrant and exiled Jews in America during the postwar period in the first place, and one must place the entire project under the aegis of what horrifyingly happened to European Jewry during World War II. While considering in his essay the dissemination of modernism by the Museum of Modern Art with its “Good Design” program, Albrecht rightly and bluntly discusses the deplorable anti-Semitism of Philip Johnson. He would have been remiss not to do so, and perhaps the final selection of essays might have benefited from a reprint of a work relating more specifically to the plight of Jewish designers who had to escape from Europe and find a safe haven. There is a huge body of literature, of course, addressing exile and emigration within artistic and intellectual communities. Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckman’s 1997 exhibition catalogue Exiles and Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art) is still crucial and relevant. Romy Golan’s contribution to that book, for instance, “On the Passage of a Few Persons through a Rather Brief Period of Time,” might have helped round out Albrecht’s otherwise excellent volume, giving a more complete understanding of how such vibrant communities of European trained and influenced artists took root within American modernist culture.

Overall, the book Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism provides valuable additions to scholarship on midcentury modernism, offering specific and new connections to both American culture and Jewish history. Its significance is underscored when one compares it to a similar and recent exhibition (2015) at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York, Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today. This, too, was a groundbreaking exhibition, with some overlap in content such as the inclusion of the work of Anni Albers. The difference, though, is that the MAD show reminded us that these women, outsiders to the scene, broke into a midcentury modernist discourse and practice dominated by men, whereas the Albrecht show strongly argues that Jewish designers, also outsiders, helped define and create that discourse and practice. The book itself is graphically stunning, and in addition to being a work of scholarly importance, also provides interesting cultural tidbits. Who knew, for instance, that George Nelson was Jewish?

Deborah Lewittes
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Music, Bronx Community College of The City University of New York