Greta Grossman Drawings Exhibition

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October 14, 2008. From October 17 through November 6, The Drawing Center will host Greta Magnusson Grossman: Furniture and Lighting, the first major U.S. exhibition of concept drawings by the Sweden-born, Los Angeles-based architect and industrial designer. The show will debut shop drawings of her metal task lamps made between 1948 and 1959 for the Ralph O. Smith Company and furniture designs for Glenn of California, Barker Brothers, and the G.T. line. Grossman was the recipient of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Good Design” award in 1950 and 1952 and the subject of more than 14 articles in John Entenza’s Arts & Architecture magazine. I.D. spoke with Brett Littman, the show’s curator and the executive director of the Drawing Center.

What’s special about Grossman’s drawings? This is the first time her drawings have been shown. There are only technical drawings on show here. For me, they represent this documentation of how her line and thinking was interesting, for example, the Cobra lamp has a shade that could kind of rotate. This is the first time that very minimalist design merges the casual living in Southern California with the technical properties of how to make things. She had a great ability as a renderer, she draws out the grain of the wood. These show that she has a deep understanding of material, form, and function.

What else is interesting about her? Grossman was a conduit of the Scandinavian Good Design Movement to practitioners in southern California, like Lautner, the Eamses. She was written about extensively in the late ‘40s to late ‘50s. From ‘48 to ‘58 when she was written about a lot, she was a superstar, but after that time there’s a significant drop-off… She bought a lot of land in the Hollywood hills and would build houses on spec and put her furniture and textiles in those houses. She acted as developer and would flip them. What you bought was a total package. There are seven or eight houses that still exist, and one or two that are still in the hands of the original owners who have kept the properties intact.

Why has Grossman been neglected? Although her pieces were mass-produced – she designed for the Barker Brothers and others – and although her name was attached to those designs, they didn’t say the name of the designer on them. And there’s a blindspot in history because there are not a lot of examples of her work in the marketplace today: Her lamps are very difficult to find; her chairs and couches are virtually impossible to find. This could be for many reasons. When she moved to San Diego, to Encenitas, later in her life she just downplayed her career. And I really do believe there’s an inherent bias to downplay the women. She resurfaced in the ‘90s and Wright (auction house) comes up with her pieces from time to time, but even the Swedes haven’t really embraced Grossman either. And yet she represents this touchstone for people who are interested in Scandinavian design and how it relates to American design.

So why are we paying attention now? In past 10 years there’s been a renaissance of trying to be knowledgeable about who made what because modernism, the vernacular, came back with Design Within Reach, for that matter Modernica, that are mass-produced replicas. The idea of good design is very much a socialist ideal and an idea of designing for middle class people. We lose track of that because design has really become a luxury market and in this country, we’re about brands, not about designers.