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Expansion of 1948 home by Greta Magnusson Grossman retains original's warmth.

Postwar residence designed for comfort departs in some ways from midcentury-modern's ultra-clean style.

February 07, 2009|David A. Keeps

The 1948 home that Greta Magnusson Grossman built in Beverly Hills has a low facade punctuated by unadorned windows. In David Gebhard and Robert Winter's "A Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles and Southern California," it is described as "a simple Modern brown box sheathed in vertical board-and-batten."

Once inside, however, visitors feel as if they're floating over the steeply sloped lot. Sunlight spills into the living room through glass walls, as though the back of the home had been cut away for viewing, like a dollhouse. Quietly dramatic, the house exemplifies the best attributes of the woman who created it -- an under-appreciated architect and furniture designer whose work from World War II to the mid-1960s still fascinates today.

A Swedish emigre, Grossman designed residences that bridged the International Style of L.A. transplants Rudolph M. Schindler and Richard Neutra and the open-plan housing of such Case Study architects as Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood, says Gerard O'Brien, owner of the L.A. vintage furniture gallery Reform.

"She embraced the indoor-outdoor lifestyle of Los Angeles and brought a Scandinavian sophistication of line, proportion and materials into California modernism," he says.

After settling in L.A. in 1941, Grossman became a star at Barker Bros. department store, designing furniture as well as decorating interiors for customers. Though her furnishings often sat alongside work by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames in modern homes, Grossman never achieved the kind of fame her contemporaries did.

At a time when female architects and furniture designers were a rarity, O'Brien says, "Grossman wore all those hats, and her home, which probably cost around $10,000 back then, was built as a showplace, to demonstrate what she was capable of."

Little exceeded her reach. She often chose to build on steep lots that required houses on stilts or cantilevered off a cliff, says Evan Snyderman, owner of R 20th Century gallery in New York and curator of a Grossman retrospective planned for Stockholm's Arkitekturmuseet in 2010.

"Her houses had the aesthetic of postwar glass-and-steel buildings but had the warmth of being handmade with wood," Snyderman says. "She was all about creating comfort within a modernist sensibility."

For two decades, Grossman pursued what Snyderman calls "warm Scandinavian minimalism," partnering with more than a dozen Southern California furniture manufacturers.

"She is renowned for her versatility, designing on all scales, from lighting to furniture," says Barbara Pflaumer, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, whose permanent collection includes a 1952 Grossman desk and a late 1940s floor lamp.

By the mid-1960s, however, Grossman had retired to San Diego and become a painter. Her furniture, never produced in large numbers, found favor during the recent midcentury modern revival. Rare pieces easily fetched five figures at auction.

"I knew of her furniture and lighting because I am an avid collector of 20th century design," says Darryl Wilson, the designer who purchased Grossman's home for $1.6 million nearly three years ago. "I was not familiar with her architecture."

Wilson spent just as much bringing the home back to life. A detached carport seemed outdated, porches were antiquated, deck railings blocked views from the house, and water and termites had done their damage.

"We had to take it down to the studs," says Wilson, who was advised to demolish the house even though it's one of the few documented Grossman residences still standing.

Instead, Wilson and architect Tony Unruh reconciled the house's past with its future, nearly doubling the original 1,500 square feet and modernizing it in a way that Grossman herself might have done.

Upstairs on the home's main level, a porch was unified with the living room, a deck off the dining area was enclosed, and the whole area was lined with steel-framed picture windows based on Grossman's design. Beyond the expanded dining area, the master bedroom was rebuilt, its new sloped ceiling echoing the home's roofline. Outside the master bedroom, Unruh added a deck topped by a sunshade made of slatted steel and outdoor medium-density fiberboard, or MDF.

Beneath the bedroom, what had been a shaded deck was enclosed and turned into a suite that includes a home office and media room.

"I have worked on several modernist houses," Unruh says, "and my approach is, 'How can I update their work and keep it in the spirit of the original design?' In this case, Darryl took an approach that was reminiscent of the era but more in keeping with current trends."

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