Thoroughly Modernist Jewish Design

San Francisco Show Highlights Mid-Century Ethos

Design For Living: Eichler model home advertisement, circa 1960.
Courtesy of the Local History Collection, Orange Public Library
Design For Living: Eichler model home advertisement, circa 1960.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published June 15, 2014, issue of June 20, 2014.
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Funny how styles come and go. One generation’s eyesore of a couch is another’s prized possession. You need only visit “Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism,” a brand-new exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum to see how fickle we can be.

Filled with stuff formerly consigned to an attic but which now reads as the epitome of cool, “Designing Home” is a visual delight. Its carefully positioned and adroitly-lit display of textiles and ceramics, lighting fixtures and furniture fills the eye. Even plywood looks good.

Although its pleasures are largely ocular, the exhibition also advances an argument. Its curator, Donald Albrecht, maintains that Jewish designers contributed mightily to mid-century design. “Designing Home,” he tells us, “is the first major exhibition and catalog to single out the contribution of the Jews to the movement.” Albrecht then takes things a step or two further by claiming that “the arena of modern design in particular offered an unprecedented flourishing of opportunities for and acceptance of Jews. For most postwar modern designers and their patrons, religion was a non-issue.”

Thanks to its dutiful cataloging of Jewish furniture, graphic, industrial and textile designers, “Designing Home” has prompted some critics, perhaps a bit too cheekily, to speculate whether the kitchen inhabited by the cast of “Leave it to Beaver,” television’s celebration of wholesome American-ness, might well have been designed by the Jews. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, of course.

The proposition that the Jews had a particular affinity for the sleek lines and burnished surfaces of modernism and actively promoted a modernistic aesthetic at home and in the public square is not new. More than a decade ago, “Berlin Metropolis: Jews and the New Culture, 1890-1918,” an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, clearly and vividly established the relationship between European Jewry and modernism. There is no shortage of scholarly literature on the subject, either.

Taking the Temperature of the Time: Henry Dreyfuss’s. Honeywell Round Thermostat, 1953.
Johnna Arnold
Taking the Temperature of the Time: Henry Dreyfuss’s. Honeywell Round Thermostat, 1953.

What’s revelatory about “Designing Home” is the relationship it seeks to demonstrate between American Jews and modernism. Training his sights on 34 influential postwar American Jewish designers — Elaine Lustig Cohen, George Nelson and Paul Rand (né Peretz Rosenbaum), among them — Albrecht makes much of their shared origins. He intimates that there was something about their being Jewish that inclined them to take up the cudgels of modernist design in postwar America. Although the exhibition’s curator seems genuinely pleased by his discovery, he stops short of fully explaining how Jewishness influenced their aesthetic vocabulary or, for that matter, their choice of careers. He’s content to leave it at roll call.

I suppose a case could be made, but I’m not entirely persuaded. To my mind, Albrecht’s curatorial scheme comes rather perilously close to being an exercise in essentializing — to imputing a group dynamic or a racial imperative to what might just as well have been an accident of history or a happenstance of sociology. Surely, there’s more to the story than meets the eye.

When it comes to plumbing the association between Jewishness and modernism in the United States, it might be more productive to focus on modernism’s cultural reception among American Jews of the 1950s and early 1960s than on its articulation within elite circles. For it is at the grassroots that American Jews took to modernism with gusto — so much so, in fact, that it is no exaggeration to say that modernism became, quite literally, the public face of postwar American Judaism.

As they took root in the suburbs, synagogue after synagogue elected to go modern. In El Paso, Texas, and Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; in Los Angeles and Baltimore, the “building committees” charged with coming up with both the finances for and the form of the postwar synagogue uniformly put their faith in the unfussy, streamlined strictures of modernism rather than in the colorful Moorish or Byzantine styles that had long characterized their predecessors. Celebrating broad expanses of natural light in lieu of stained glass, and the landscape rather than the city block, their affinity for the new was warmly endorsed, and even roundly encouraged, by the Jewish community’s cultural custodians.

Pure Fluff: The 1956 Marshmallow Sofa designed by George Nelson & Associates, Irving Harper, Vitra.
Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum
Pure Fluff: The 1956 Marshmallow Sofa designed by George Nelson & Associates, Irving Harper, Vitra.

As early as 1947, Commentary magazine, then a bellwether of contemporary Jewish affairs, hosted an “informal symposium” on synagogue architecture. Featuring some of the leading architects of the day, among them Ely Kahn and Percival and Paul Goodman, it encouraged American Jews to think long and hard about the aesthetic opportunities that lay in store. “With so many Jewish communities planning new synagogues or embarking upon building projects deferred by the war, the problem of Jewish religious architecture has become one of wide practical concern,” the journal noted, adding that its discussion was also a matter of “creating Jewish cultural forms indigenous to the American scene.” Revealingly enough, each of the architects who participated in the discussion, to a man, advocated a modernistic approach to synagogue architecture. As one of their number, Franz Landsberger, would have it, “this new modern style commends itself particularly to us as Jews… It parallels our striving toward clarity and truth.”

Later still, Peter Blake’s 1954 compendium, “An American Synagogue for Today and Tomorrow,” became required reading for those rabbis and their congregants contemplating relocation. Hailed as a “guide for the perplexed communities in countless suburbs of America,” as well as a work of “sober usefulness,” it offered all manner of practical advice — on flexible seating, air conditioning, lighting and acoustics — as well as reflection pieces on the theological implications of building a house of prayer. Here, too, references to an architecture that was horizontal, low-slung and adjustable had pride of place.

The Jewish community’s seal of approval for such indices of modernist architecture was not inevitable; it was a deliberate choice. What prompted it? Was it because, pace the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibition, so many of the leading lights in mid-century design were Jewish? Or had the appeal of modernism more to do with its vote of confidence in the future, an attitude shared by postwar American Jewry? A little of both, perhaps. Even more to the point, I suspect, was the belief that modernism was “most expressive of America.” What better way for the Jews of the 1950s to make themselves at home in the United States than by adopting this most resolutely American sensibility for their most distinctive institution. A synagogue built according to the principles of modernism, one advocate explained, furnished “visual proof that we Jews are full participants in this momentous period in America’s history.”


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