Greta Magnusson Grossman (1906-1999) is having a brilliant posthumous career. She was a star of LACMA’s “California Design, 1930-1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way'”—her words supplying the quoted subtitle. Grossman presently has two L.A. museum shows, “California’s Designing Women” (at the Autry Center through Jan. 6) and “Greta Magnusson Grossman: A Car and Some Shorts” at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. The PMCA exhibition originated at Stockholm’s Swedish Museum of Architecture, and Grossman is responsible for its subtitle too. A journalist asked what she needed in moving from Sweden to California.
Greta Manusson Grossman made her formidable name in 1937 by designing a crib for the Swedish Princess Birgitta (left and not in the PMCA show). It’s more Hollywood Regency than Swedish Modern. Three years later Greta and swing bandleader husband Billy Grossman moved to the U.S. A San Francisco newspaper reported/conjectured that premonitions of war had killed the market for jazz and modern furniture.
Greta opened her own store on Rodeo Drive. She designed for Barker Brothers, Glenn of California, and such Hollywood folk as Gracie Allen, Frank Sinatra, and that other Greta, Garbo. Grossman got tons of press. She was once as famous as George Nelson or Charles and Ray Eames. (Unlike poor Ray, she wasn’t introduced on talk shows as the Genius’ wife.) The U.S. State Department even promoted Grossman overseas, spinning her Scandinavian-L.A. modernism as “a true picture… of the American way of life.”
Grossman resonates today in part because she foreshadows some contemporary designers we’d call postmodern. Her 1952 folding screen is a room divider that it does nothing of the kind. Each panel has six lacquered balls suspended in space with piano wire. The colored spheres resemble those in George Nelson’s ball clocks (1948) and the Eames’ Hang-It-All (1953). The latter pretend to the ethos of form-follows-function. Grossman’s screen seems to be saying, to hell with function.
Grossman is at her most original/difficult in lighting. The gallery texts claim she was the first to create bullet-shaped lampshades, an echt-mid-century idea that quickly became cliché. Grossman’s lighting fixtures do not look expensive or beautiful or (perish the though) feminine. Her Floor Lamp Model 900-F directs a bullet shade onto a cobra-hood reflector—even a lampshade can be a Rube Goldberg machine. Grossman’s immediate followers prettified her designs, and contemporary designers have made modernism a punch line. Postmodern objets are usually slick. Grossman’s look dumb and cheap. When they’re scuffed from use, as many are, they look dumber and cheaper. Electric cords that detract from other modern designs work with Grossman’s. Mainly, Grossman’s lamps are perfect haikus of life’s awkwardness. There’s nothing simple or 20th century-specific about that.