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Greta Magnusson Grossman retrospective to open in Pasadena

October 24, 2012|By David A. Keeps
  • With appreciation growing among collectors and curators, Greta Magnusson Grossman has climbed into the top tier of Midcentury Modern designers. Grossman, pictured circa 1943, was the creator of, clockwise from bottom left: the Ironing Board coffee table, the Grasshopper lamp, a 62 Series desk that seems to float, a quirky room screen and the ceramic work atop the coffee table -- a reminder that she was a multifaceted creative force.
With appreciation growing among collectors and curators, Greta Magnusson…

At a Van Nuys auction house earlier this month, bidding on a seemingly simple 1940s aluminum and brass floor lamp by Greta Grossman rose to $10,000, then with the crowd buzzing, climbed past $15,000. Then $20,000. And $25,000. By the time the gavel fell and the applause in the room had died down, an unidentified bidder had bought the lamp for $37,500 -- a record for Grossman and a sign of how this pioneering female designer, once a footnote in Midcentury Modern history, is on her way to becoming a household name.

Greta Magnusson Grossman (1906-99) was a prize-winning decorator and furniture designer throughout the 1930s in Stockholm, but she left her native Swedenin 1940. Settling in Los Angeles, she opened a Rodeo Drive studio, designed for the landmark Barker Bros. store, built modernist homes and crafted innovative furniture and lighting. Yet by the late 1960s, Grossman had fallen into obscurity -- as enigmatic as her fellow compatriot and onetime client Greta Garbo.

“She was a major player in the 1940s and '50s, a media darling pictured alongside Charles Eames and Isamu Noguchi, and poof, she disappears,” said Evan Snyderman, the furniture dealer and co-owner of R 20th Century in New York, the gallery that acquired Grossman’s archives and sells vintage Grossman pieces. “She walked away from the world of design, built a home in San Diego and started painting landscapes.”

Grossman's design legacy, however, is building thanks partly to an exhibition that premiered in 2010 at the Arkitekturmuseet, the Swedish Museum of Architecture in Stockholm. “Greta Magnusson Grossman: A Car and Some Shorts,” which take its subtitle from Grossman's quip to a newspaper about what she needed most upon her arrival in California, opens Sunday for a four-month run at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.

The exhibition and accompanying book represent the first career retrospective for Grossman and features rare architectural drawings, interior design renderings and home furnishings.

“In Sweden, she was almost forgotten,” said curator Karin Åberg Waern, who created the show with Snyderman. “It was a great discovery to find a woman designer who succeeded in two countries.”

The Times first surveyed Grossman's work five years ago, but only recently has the popularity among collectors and curators begun to spread to a broader audience. The Danish manufacturer Gubi has begun to reproduce Grossman’s iconic lights, including the three-legged Grasshopper floor lamp, which originally sold for $19 in 1949. Vintage versions can fetch up to $10,000 at auction now, but new Grossman devotees can find the newly manufactured Grasshoppers sold for $875 at Design Within Reach.

“Living in a Modern Way," the California design show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year, brought Grossman's work "back into focus in a major way," said Los Angeles Modern Auctions owner Peter Loughrey, who sold the record-breaking Grossman floor lamp at his Van Nuys warehouse this month for more than four times its pre-auction estimate.

With the new exhibition in Pasadena, he said, “Interest is reaching a fever pitch."

"The gratifying thing is that it’s not a local market getting carried away. We’ve been selling her designs to people in New York, Europe and Asia.”

Los Angeles interior designer Jamie Bush has used Grossman lamps alongside furniture from the 1940s and '50s but noted they would work equally well in lofts and other industrial-accented spaces. “The paint finishes she used were almost automotive, and that feels very American to me,” he said.

The broad appeal of Grossman's work has its roots in Stockholm, where in the 1930s she had exposure to the Bauhaus movement and International Style architects such as Le Corbusier. In Los Angeles, she joined European immigrants including Paul László and Paul Frankl, whose work bridged the gap between Art Deco and Midcentury Modern.

Grossman's showrooms displayed her work alongside Scandinavian designs, helping to open the floodgates for the Danish Modern craze of the 1950s. Her lighting designs were simplistic yet highly technical, incorporating flexible gooseneck stems and ball-pivot mechanisms on shades -- earning her comparisons to iconic French designers Serge Mouille and Mathieu Matégot.

Grossman, who was married to a jazz musician called the Benny Goodman of Sweden, was able to fuse her Scandinavian sensibility with new Golden State materials and technologies.

“California gave her the freedom and skilled craftspeople to design and live in a modern way,” Snyderman said, adding that Grossman was a sixth-generation woodworker who apprenticed as a carpenter and studied ceramics, textiles and other crafts.

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