‘Mad Men’ furnishings and much more at CJM 

click to enlarge George Nelson
  • George Nelson’s 1956 Marshmallow Sofa is among the eye-catching midcentury furnishings on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
With the increasingly popularity of midcentury modernism — seen in all its dubious glory in the TV series “Mad Men”— the timing seems right for “Designing Homes: Jews and Midcentury Modernism,” the first exhibit of its kind, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Jewish artists, architects, designers, craftspeople, promoters and patrons of the mid-20th century were instrumental in establishing the modernist aesthetic in this country. Some were first- and second-generation Americans whose families had arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some were emigres who arrived in the 1930s, fleeing anti-Semitism and bringing with them the avant-garde influence of Germany’s Bauhaus.

Guest-curated by Donald Albrecht of the Museum of the City of New York, the exhibit features the work of 35 to 40 designers, some of whom are still alive. It examines the architecture, furniture, graphics (as seen in book and album covers, posters and more), photography, fabrics, crafts and iconic objects that formed an inextricable part of the American zeitgeist from 1945 into the 1960s — both its high and low culture, as Albrecht notes.

Enlarged images by architectural photographer Julius Shulman show representative homes, including the multi-story Schiff duplex in the Marina, designed by Richard Neutra for a family that had escaped Nazi Germany and wanted a house to suit the furnishings they originally had commissioned from interior designer Harry Rosenthal for their Berlin apartment.

Perhaps the most familiar name among the architects is Joseph Eichler, whose ranch-style, wood-and-glass houses can be seen Bay Area-wide.

Among the women represented, Berlin-born textile artist Anni Albers’ designs and fabrics seem to come from another era entirely.

Similarly, some of the more elaborate Judaica objects — menorahs and other handcrafted ceremonial items — look out of place in this sleek, minimalist, postwar environment.

Designer Henry Dreyfuss’ pink princess phone, Honeywell thermostat and “Big Ben” metal alarm clock evoke memories of a more innocent, low-tech time. One wall displays familiar logos that were designed by Jews, including one for Ford that was never implemented.

Among the bubble lamps, wallpaper (Saul Steinberg’s aviary pattern is whimsical and charming), boxy wooden desks, chairs, sofas (including George Nelson’s odd “Marshmallow Sofa,” a concise, couchlike arrangement of 18 round red cushions), bookcases (Paul T. Frankl’s is a skyscraper whose components can be mixed and matched), what predominates are the geometric patterns, the clean, sharp, parallel lines, the browns and beiges, and the open white spaces that are so emblematic of the modernist style.

Special programs accompanying the show include gallery talks on select Fridays, lectures on select Thursdays, and screening of films that depict the mid-century American Jewish experience on select Tuesdays.


Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism

Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays and closed Wednesdays; show closes Oct. 6

Tickets: $10 to $12, free for children; $5 after 5 p.m. Thursdays

Contact: (415) 655-7800, www.thecjm.org

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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