Modern furniture is a growth, progressing out of the needs of contemporary living, Mrs.
Grossman points out. “It is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions. That is why it is! It has developed out of our own preferences for living in a modern way …”
— Rose Henderson, interview with Greta Magnusson Grossman, 1951 1
How architecture is written about, who is written about, and by whom — these are now pressing concerns within architectural discourse. Here we seek to do two things: to give an account of the overlooked, misattributed, and largely ignored contribution of one significant designer; and also to explore a methodology as to how women designers can be written about differently. To do this effectively, we need to confront the core assumptions upon which the canon of architectural knowledge and understanding is based and question how we capture, contextualize, analyze, and synthesize a designer’s contribution.
Greta Magnusson Grossman was a prolific designer working within the male-dominated world of mid-century modern design, whose status and influence has been largely ignored. Born in Helsingborg, Sweden, in 1906, she was a polymath — an industrial designer, interior designer, and architect whose work and career spanned from Scandinavia to North America. Indeed, her geographical origins can be seen as a touchstone for her migration, in her mid-thirties, from Stockholm to Los Angeles; certainly, her life and career would be framed around both her Swedish design sensibility and its translation into an alien context. Magnusson Grossman was born into a world on the cusp of immense disruption and change, and her willingness to embrace modernity in all its guises is evident in her life choices as well as in the objects and spaces that she designed. 2
Born into a world on the cusp of immense change, Magnusson Grossman embraced modernity in all its guises.
Magnusson Grossman’s family history suggests a readymade connection to the world of Swedish design and craft. Her parents seem to have been progressive in their outlook and ambitions for their only daughter, whose artistic proclivity was encouraged alongside what design historian Andrea Codrington has described as her “less than feminine” pursuits. 3 Magnusson Grossman’s paternal grandfather was a builder who built the house she grew up in; “I have wood in my soul,” she would later say in an interview with House & Garden magazine. 4 After graduating from a comprehensive högre läroverk för flickor (high school for girls), which offered an all-round education similar to that offered to boys at the time, Magnusson Grossman did a woodworking apprenticeship at a local furniture manufacturer. Soon her growing passion for furniture and industrial design resulted in the decision to move to Stockholm to attend the Högre Konstindustriella Skolan, the Higher School of Industrial Art, later known as Konstfack, the preeminent art and design school in Stockholm.
Magnusson Grossman’s education was broad. Specializing in furniture, she was also exposed to ceramics, metalwork, and textiles, as well as life drawing, decorative painting, ornamental sculpting, and art history. 5 While Konstfack offered a fundamentally traditional education, it was also inflected with new concern for the philosophies expounded by modernist thinkers in mainland Europe, in particular those of the Deutscher Werkbund. At the same time modernism in Sweden was construed as interchangeable with functionalism, or funkis, as it was referred to colloquially.
After completing her studies at Konstfack and winning a travel scholarship to Vienna and Stuttgart in the summer of 1931, the young proto-modernist was set to launch her career. She took her portfolio to the director of the furniture showroom at the leading Stockholm department store NK. The interview did not go well: many years later, Magnusson Grossman would recall that she was told “they didn’t have any facilities for women.” 6 Afterward she was briefly employed at a furniture boutique in the city, but soon quit and, in the spring of 1933, formed a partnership with a Konstfack colleague, establishing a design studio that specialized in furniture and home accessories. The place soon became a focal point for emerging designers, the scene of lively parties and talks by like-minded professionals, and the partners quickly attracted a multinational client base.
Magnusson Grossman flourished in Stockholm. The young designer was picked up by the press across the political spectrum, which heralded her as “our first female furniture architect in action.” As the Swedish capital was developing a reputation for funkis, she became a “poster girl for modern style.” In 1933 she won second prize in the “combination furniture” category of a competition sponsored by a municipal craft society — the first woman to win anything in this competition. 7 Also that year she married Billy Grossman, a drummer from England who’d been a central figure in the Stockholm jazz scene for years. The glamorous young couple became a favorite interview subject for diverse newspapers, which featured stories about their home life centered on domestic activities like cooking as well as artistic endeavors including weaving and sculpture.
The young designer was heralded in the Swedish press as ‘our first female furniture architect in action.’
Towards the end of the decade, Magnusson Grossman enrolled as a part-time student at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, recognizing that she would need architectural credentials in order to further develop her career. (It is likely that Magnusson Grossman would have been taught by Gunnar Asplund as well as other significant Swedish modernists who were then teaching there.) Quickly, though, her studies came to an end. The Magnusson Grossmans had been aware, of course, of the rumblings of fascist politics all across Europe; and although Sweden declared itself “non-belligerent,” most Swedes understood that conflict could not be avoided and that safety was uncertain. More ominously, Billy Grossman’s Jewish heritage meant that remaining in Sweden was potentially dangerous. With this in mind, the Magnusson Grossmans made the difficult decision to abandon everything and leave Europe altogether. After traveling east by air and train across the Soviet Union, they sailed across the Pacific to the United States, arriving in San Francisco in July 1940.
Given their appeal to the Swedish press, it’s perhaps not surprising that the couple’s arrival would be recorded in the local newspaper. Two days after they disembarked, the San Francisco Examiner took note, in language that underscored their image as model émigrés — educated, cultured, economically productive and self-sufficient, not to mention acceptable in appearance:
In war periled, dictator encircled Sweden, there is little inclination these days and nights for the syncopated rhythms of swing music. As for the furniture market, there’s no demand for anything but sturdy pieces of bomb shelter decor. That’s why Mr. and Mrs. Billy Grossman were in San Francisco yesterday, looking forward to new careers in America. He is Scandinavia’s pre-war dance band favorite, known as the “Benny Goodman of Sweden.” His chic blonde wife, Greta Magnusson Grossman, is a well-known designer of modern furniture. The couple arrived here Saturday aboard the Japanese liner Nakura Maru — she with the number one objective of “buying a car and some shorts” as their first step towards self-Americanization. 8
Despite the personal challenges of dislocation, and amidst the intensifying global war, Magnusson Grossman enjoyed swift success in America. Within months, the new arrival opened a furniture store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills — a decision driven by a chance meeting with a Los Angeles businessman who had just begun manufacturing a line of modern furniture. She was soon invited to contribute to an exhibition at an art gallery in Hollywood — an opportunity that connected her to the wider design community. Within a couple of years Magnusson Grossman had moved her studio to Hollywood, where she was “discovered” by an executive from Barker Brothers; her work for the company formed the first major focus of her U.S. professional activities. A home furnishings store in downtown Los Angeles, Barker Brothers had become the largest in the world because of its proactive pursuit of home builders at the moment that construction permits were granted. More importantly, the store had caught on to the shift in taste towards modern design for the home, and Magnusson Grossman was sensitive to this development.
Magnusson Grossman was perfectly positioned to amalgamate her Scandinavian experience with the culture of postwar California.
Magnusson Grossman’s professional philosophy asserted that design should be responsive to its time; accommodate human factors including ergonomics, well-being, and social interaction; feature natural forms and materials; and provide an “engaging backdrop to a person’s activities.” 9 Clearly this ethos reflected her training in the Swedish principles of “democratic design,” which argued that products and objects should be not only widely affordable but also no less beautiful for being inexpensive. Magnusson Grossman was thus perfectly positioned to amalgamate her Scandinavian experience with the culture of California at mid-century. In doing so she was contributing to a brand of modernism that blended innovative modern furniture and lighting with soft furnishings, throws, rugs, and plants — pioneering a form of interior decorating that is still tremendously popular today. And by presenting this style of juxtaposition as a desirable choice, rather than a financial concession, she did much to inspire consumer confidence while also promoting an environmentally sensitive aesthetics of re-use and natural materials.
By the mid 1940s, Magnusson Grossman was well established in her new country. Her design of an “interior set” for Barker Brothers appealed to customers who were not simply shopping for pieces of furniture but also seeking ideas about décor for the entire home. (These room-sets offered a vision of the modern home that predates IKEA’s move into furniture retail and immersive showrooms.) The positive public response was further reflected in Barker Brothers’ decision to dedicate an entire floor to a “Modern Shop,” where Magnusson Grossman’s work was shown next to that of Alvar Aalto (although her pieces were misattributed to him, and his nationality was described as Swedish). The display was extremely popular; over 6,000 people attended the gala opening, and in its review of the event, House & Garden featured Magnusson Grossman among the “Up and Coming: Five Whose Stars are Shining in the Design World.” 11
By now Magnusson Grossman’s rising profile had attracted prominent clients, including the movie stars Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, and Frank Sinatra, and the real estate developer Paul Trousdale. Her most celebrated interiors project was for the house Trousdale built for himself in Palm Springs, whose ranch-like decor embodied her non-dogmatic design ethos. “There is no sense in discarding the old merely because it is not new … so many old things mix in very well. So many good things are timeless,” she said in an interview in 1951. 12 She was also attracting the attention of modernist architects, including Gregory Ain and Paul László, with whom she collaborated on projects that allowed her to further develop her interior expertise, to produce bespoke furniture, and to gain a sense of how to work independently as an architect — a set of skills she would rely upon as she expanded her expertise from designing interiors to designing buildings.
Starting in the late 1940s, Magnusson Grossman increasingly turned her talents towards architecture, and over the next decade she would design 28 houses in Los Angeles, most sited on scenic lots overlooking canyons and hills, and another back in Sweden, without ever formally qualifying as an architect. Her first house, for herself and her husband, was located on a steep hill on a winding street in Beverly Hills. The wood-clad structure is cleverly positioned on the rocky terrain, perched above the ground and projecting outwards; the interior is spread across several levels that navigate the topography of the site and establish a fluid and permeable set of spaces that accommodate the different actions of everyday living and working.
Magnusson Grossman’s own designs filled these spaces; as a contemporaneous review in American Swedish Monthly noted: “Her own home provides a good cross section of what is typical in her work. In it there is not a single piece of furniture, not a lamp, nor even such things as knives and forks, which she has not designed herself.” 13 As Magnusson Grossman would say years later: “to do a good job of planning, the designer must complete the entire design, from landscape and structure to furniture and decoration.” 14 Throughout the next decade her agenda was crowded with commissions for numerous products, from furniture to fabrics to lighting; she even designed a portable aluminum oven for Alcoa. Ultimately her bestsellers were two lamps designed for the Ralph O. Smith Company, the double-shaded Cobra and the slender standing Grasshopper, both of which received awards from the Museum of Modern Art.
By the end of the decade, Magnusson Grossman was more successful than ever. She continued to be sought after by manufacturers in Sweden and the U.S., and to be courted by media that looked to California for the next trend in furniture design and by cultural institutions — including the Pasadena Art Museum, Walker Art Center, Chicago Museum of Science and Industry — keen to exhibit her work. She was teaching at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, and at the University of California, Los Angeles. Yet there were signs of growing disillusionment. In an interview from 1960 with the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Magnusson Grossman’s tone was rueful, even pessimistic: “We have lost our searching for design that fits the time we are living in. And our design doesn’t start from within, it starts from without. …. Current design is not thought through and it is not original. 5
In her later years, Magnusson Grossman never talked about her successful career as a designer in Stockholm or Los Angeles.
Within a few months of that interview, Greta and Billy left Los Angeles and moved to the more relaxed and detached San Diego, effectively — and in retrospect, abruptly — cutting her ties to the design industry and her community of friends and collaborators. From this point on Magnusson Grossman stopped designing and focused instead on painting and playing bridge. Little is known about this later period of her life. Billy suffered from ill health and died in 1979, leaving her a widow for two decades before her death in 1999. When interviewed, her San Diego friends reported that Magnusson Grossman never talked about her successful career as a designer in Stockholm or Los Angeles; perhaps the memories of struggling to establish and maintain a professional identity all those years were in some ways painful.
Today Greta Magnusson Grossman is largely remembered as a furniture and lighting designer; meanwhile her practice as interior designer and architect has been almost entirely overlooked by academic records. But here we argue that her work — from ideas she tested at the scale of the product to those she pioneered at the scale of the spatial environment — is essential to the canon of interior design, and pivotal to the emergence and influence of California design in the postwar era.
We are inspired by the tactics of archival activism, which advances different perspectives on what constitutes archival content and who gets to create it.
To gather the evidence to substantiate our claim, we have needed to look beyond the historians — who have neglected their duty towards designer and discipline — to the manufacturers and curators who specialize in constructing archives intended to enhance the status of modernist furniture and lighting in the service of collectors. We have relied on resources — trade journals, design magazines, newspaper supplements — that allegedly lack the integrity and objectivity of academic writing, and which might call into question our claims. But it is only through these means that we can construct the Trojan horse needed to mount an effective assault on the canon. This methodological approach draws inspiration and tactics from archival activism, a form of “radical or counter-hegemonic history making activity” 16 used to advance different perspectives on what constitutes archival content, and on how it is classified and who gets to create it.
As female designers and writers, we have not found ourselves adequately reflected in the archive, with its many designated “masters” of architecture and interior design; thus we feel compelled to scrutinize the fundamentals of the discipline through a gender-critical, feminist perspective. Previously we have asserted that the practice of space-making is strategically and fundamentally a feminist action, and that interior design should be reclaimed as “women’s work.” 17 We see Magnusson Grossman’s interiors as the point of convergence for all aspects of her career, providing the crucible for the creation of objects, surfaces, and spaces.
To reinsert Magnusson Grossman into the modernist canon, must we first accept the canon as it has been constructed, with its pantheon of masters?
In an essay in Art Papers, from 2013, the writer Arianna Schioldager asks: “Why has design pioneer Greta Magnusson Grossman so long remained a footnote in the annals of mid-century modern history, even in the midst of her own revival?” 18 Why indeed? Certainly our goal of writing Greta Magnusson Grossman into the canon of design history, in particular that of modernism — easily the most significant cultural, political, and social movement of the 20th century — is made all the more problematic because modernism has long had such an uneasy relationship with marginal discourses. Six decades ago, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs challenged the “functional segregation” of modern architecture that frames a “split between domestic and public life.” 19 In its very principles, modernism established a clear distinction between home and work, the private and the public — and so there is palpable discomfort in the non-binary position presented by professional women who occupy both spheres. Even in an avowedly “radical” institution like the Bauhaus — where no policy existed for the admittance of women to the institution as a whole — women were encouraged to concentrate on fields perceived as feminine, such as textiles. 20 All of which raises a crucial question: To reinsert Magnusson Grossman into the canon, must we first accept the canon as it has been constructed, with its pantheon of masters?
We do not want to accept this canon; we would argue instead that for history to be rewritten equally, it must be dismantled and reconstructed in its entirety. Where the existing masters might land in the reshuffle is uncertain; but whatever the case, it is crucially important to assert the integrity of the work, independent of prevailing hierarchies. Such a project relies implicitly on the activities and writings of the growing decolonization movement. As the journalist Dalia Gebrial has argued, “Such a movement … needs to understand its position as responding to live issues of inequality, colonialism and oppression —rather than just being a matter of legacies, or unearthing historical accounts for the sake of it. To do this kind of work … is to dig where you are — where you have access … in the interest of social justice.” 21 This question of “access” captures why we were required to rely almost exclusively upon magazines and newspapers in order to forensically piece together the material needed to construct a life. The exceptions were two catalogue essays: one by Andrea Codrington, in Greta Magnusson Grossman — A Car and Some Shorts, written for a 2010 exhibition at the Arkitekturmuseet, in Stockholm; the other by Lily Kane, which accompanied a 2000 exhibition at R & Co., in New York City. 22
What feminism has gained from postcolonial theory is a keen understanding that knowledge emerges from within specific geopolitical and intellectual spaces.
As it happens, constructing a “decolonized” lost legacy has proved challenging; it is paradoxical, to say the least, to use “colonized” evidence to propose a decolonized model of capture and a new body of evidence. For this reason, the decolonial turn 23 within feminism is necessarily open-ended and contested. The countless manifestations of colonization throughout the world and the extent to which knowledge frameworks, canons, and cultures — and also lands, waters, bodies, identities, emotions, minds — remain colonized: these conditions ensure that decolonizing projects are works in progress. 24 What feminism has gained from postcolonial theory and, in turn, from decolonization, is a keen understanding that knowledge emerges from within specific geopolitical and intellectual spaces or sets of experiences. To challenge knowledge is thus to tease apart the intersections through which it is trafficked, consumed, and understood in different places. 25 By experimenting with a fledgling feminist method of restitution, we seek to confront the gender-biased historical amnesia that has long obscured the contributions of women designers, and to align with the growing ranks of female architects and academics who now identify with the protest chant: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” 26
Greta Magnusson Grossman was by any measure a prolific designer; yet for all her accomplishments and success, especially in Los Angeles, she remained an outsider, and not only because of her foreign status. Consider, for instance, that John Entenza, the influential editor of Arts & Architecture, was aware of her work and chose to promote it; nine of her houses were featured in the pages of his magazine. Yet it seems that Entenza never approached her to participate in the famous Case Study program, the centerpiece of his efforts to advance a postwar California aesthetic; presumably this was because she lacked formal architectural credentials. 27 As the critic Tim Abrahams wrote in Blueprint, in 2011: “It is hard to say what hampered Magnusson Grossman most as an architect: sexism, her lack of qualifications or the skills she undoubtedly had in other areas. Ostracized by the male-dominated architectural scene which grew up around the Case Study Houses, Grossman was further compromised by having no formal architectural training.” 28 Abrahams’s article is sympathetic; yet to suggest that lack of formal training was a reasonable obstacle to advancement is to overlook that such world-famous architects as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe all lacked degrees or similar credentials. 29
Abrahams further argues that Magnusson Grossman was “hampered by her success as a furniture and interior designer, becoming best known for her work for furniture manufacturer Glenn of California and the department store Barker Brothers.” 30 But this too reveals a gendered perception of success and capability, considering that many of her male peers were celebrated for their designs for tables, chairs, lighting, and assorted household accouterments. Can we really blame Greta Magnusson Grossman’s thwarted architectural legacy on her success in furniture and interiors? Again, it seems timely to question this analysis, to unpick this set of circumstances and scrutinize the conditions within which Magnusson Grossman’s career developed. Abrahams ends his Blueprint article by proposing an alternative reading of Magnusson Grossman’s legacy: that this “enigmatic Swede” has been there all along as a “phantom figure,” haunting the iconic images of the period. 31
The absorption of Magnusson Grossman’s work into the background of mid-century design underscores the need to pay closer attention to peripheral spaces and objects.
The absorption of Magnusson Grossman’s work into the background of mid-century modern design suggests that we need to pay closer attention to the peripheral spaces and objects that shape our perception. In her essay “Everyday and ‘Other’ Spaces,” the architecture scholar Mary McLeod questions the uncertain place and validity of domestic culture within critical and historical discourse; whereas many cultural commentators are guilty of marginalizing design practices that focus on the domestic interior, others are seen to “grant” them “a place in aesthetic culture.” 32 That Magnusson Grossman’s architectural contribution was almost exclusively centered in housing offers another reason for her relative obscurity. And it might also explain why acts of restitution to date have been led by curators and manufacturers, and not by historians. 33
To describe our motivation for writing about Magnusson Grossman as solely a matter of historical justice would be disingenuous. Greta Magnusson Grossman was a truly great designer, regardless of whether and how this greatness was, or was not, captured and acknowledged. As Schioldager puts it in her Art Papers essay: “even in celebratory retrospective, Greta Grossman remains an unremembered great, a pioneering figure invisible amongst the visible curves of her spindle-back lounge chair and the slender lines of her Grasshopper lamp.” 34