The Modern Makers: A Major Show Recalling Midcentury Aesthetics

The modern kitchen, from an illustration in “Designing Home,” the exhibition catalogue.

Mar. 30, 2015

“Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism,” now at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, is a remarkable assemblage of home furnishings, housewares, fabrics and graphics. Cre­ated and organized by The Con­temp­orary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, the show, which runs through the end of the year, gives a rare view of how the Modernist movement was fueled by the talents of Jewish designers and architects.

Below are excerpts from a conversation between the exhibit’s curator, Don­ald Albrecht, and April Koral of the Trib.

You often use the word optimism when you refer to this period. Why is that?

After the end of the Second World War, in the U.S., there was a revved-up, booming economy. There were new freeways and new housing developments with new suburban houses that were being filled with new plastic radios and plywood furniture and princess phones. The designers used bright colors, humorous patterns, dynamic stripes, glass walls. People wanted to enjoy the fruits of life. A British architectural historian, Raymond Bannin, who visited the U.S., went back and gave a lecture in which he said, “I have seen the future. I have been to Los Angeles.”

This is an ambitious show. One really understands from it the breadth of the Modern movement.

Yes, I wanted to show the impact on every aspect of life—on the houses, the furniture, fabrics, dishware, books, record covers. But I was  interested in not just doing a purely esthetic show. I like to tell the cultural and social stories behind the objects. This was a great opportunity to do that because it was really embedded in a historical moment.

What was that historical moment?

I think in some ways Modernism was free of negative associations of Europe and for first generation Jewish designers born to immigrant parents, it was a way to move forward without that baggage.

And then there was the flood of Jewish émigrés fleeing the war in Europe who brought their own ethos to the movement.

Yes, the émigrés could start over in America and Modernism was the start-over style. They could embrace the American look and embrace America. Almost 40 designers in the show either came from or were influenced by the Bauhaus in Germany, who believed that good design should be for everybody, not just for the aristocracy. People from MoMA like Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson had gone to the Bauhaus and knew many of the designers.

I was surprised to learn about the role that MoMA and other museums around the country played in promoting Modernism.

There was a real fervor to make the average person go modern. MoMA was very propagandistic. They wanted to affect consumer taste. In 1949 MoMA did a show, “Modern Art in Your Life,” in which it said, “You don’t have to own a Picasso to own modern art. You can buy this record cover that is inspired by Picasso. Or you can buy this cabinet that has the geometric patterning that is like Mondrian.

Did you make any discoveries as you were putting the show together?

When I was working on the show, I bumped into a friend who had written his master’s thesis on Ernest Sohn, a tableware designer. I had never heard of him. I also discovered that Saul Stein­berg did wallpaper! Like most people, I only knew him as a New Yorker cartoonist.

How do you think these designers would feel if they knew they were in a show of Jewish designers?

Many would probably not like it. Many of them didn’t identify as Jews or were very assimilated. The daughter of Eva Zeisel (a Hungarian-born ceramic artist) did not want her mother’s work to be in the show. She said her mother wouldn’t want to be seen in a show of wo­men designers or of European designers either. I think that people should enjoy this as a design show that connects these people in an interesting way, a design show that has this link of very sophisticated Jewish talent who fled Europe with our home-grown talent of Jewish designers.