The Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco enters the post-war fray with the exhibition Designing Home: Jews and MidCentury Modernism. Based on the high attendance of the preview night on April 23, the subject continues to arouse an ever-growing audience. Open until October 6, the show displays over 150 pieces, encompassing furniture, architectural photographs, graphic arts, textiles, objects, movies, magazine, books covers, and product design. Familiar protagonists (Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, George Nelson, Saul Bass, Anni Albers, Herbert Bayer) join under-the-radar designers (Marguerite Wildehain, Lili Blumenau, Judith Brown, Muriel Coleman, Eugene Deutch, Marli Ehrmann) to present a compelling narrative of 20th century modernity, craftsmanship, and taste, all fused into art.
Within the heritage industry, the Mid-Century Age has a rather stable footing, with its own dedicated magazines, literary classics, trade shows, furniture stores, tourism, symposia, academic careers, and professional expertise. Designers once known in the restricted circles of modernist believers are now household names among the general public. What distinguishes this show from comparable venues, however, is the focus on the Jewish contribution in the formation of this aesthetic universe. New York–based curator Donald Albrecht, a trend-setter in his own right, and associate curator Lily Siegel have carefully chosen canonical artifacts revealing the degree of personal commitments that Jews made to a vision of modernity integral to the built environment. While no notion of Jewish space is advanced in either the objects on display or the catalog, their radical involvement helped to rethink virtually every single artifact in the human-made world.
The subtext of the show is the migration of Jewish artists from Germany—the cradle of the Modern Movement, where the Bauhaus experienced its rise and fall—in the 1930s largely to the East Coast. Local elites were somewhat prepared to receive their message in the wake of numerous exhibits on modern art and architecture. Unsurprisingly, the epicenter of this story on American soil is New York, where so many settled and found outlets and audience for their ideas both in the industry and in Ivy League teaching institutions. Yet Chicago and California also became playgrounds for some key players. While this canonical account has been amply told, it is hardly the whole story. Architects of Jewish origins had made indelible marks already in the American consciousness. The story of Detroit to a large extent is unimaginable outside the enormous role that the towering Albert Kahn, a German Jew who migrated to America in the late 1800s, had in crafting a new delivery process for the A/E/C world and the remarkable images of Ford’s manufacturing plants. Furthermore, both Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra came to the United States under the irresistible spell of Frank Lloyd Wright, rather than political persecution as their later colleagues experienced.
In the display, the pinnacle of the Jewish intersection is the Kaufman House in Palm Springs, CA. The client (Edgar Kaufman), the architect (Richard Neutra), and the photographer (Julius Shulman) all share Jewish roots. Statistically speaking, the patronage of Jews was essential in advancing the cause of modern architecture and design in North America. In fact, a significant number of Jewish Intellectuals, academics, and industrialists—including Josef Von Sternberg and Samuel Freeman—were enlightened clients who gave opportunities to the likes of Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright to make lasting statements in architecture for the benefits of civilization.
Curiously, venerable architects such as Eric Mendelsohn, Louis Kahn, Victor Gruen, and Serge Chermayeff, together with lesser-known figures such Joseph Allen Stein, are notably absent from the exhibit. Even in the realm of architectural photography protagonists such as Ezra Stoller and Marvin Rand are nowhere to be found. And yet, the point of the exhibit has less to do with being exhaustive and more to do with establishing a clear understanding about the participation of Jews in giving form to the zeitgeist of the 20th century. In this respect, the exhibit is already an instant classic.