“[Modern design] is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions,” Greta Magnusson Grossman once said. The Swedish-American architect and designer closely followed that vision, pioneering her own light, whimsical aesthetic and, in the process, greatly influencing the modernist movement in Los Angeles, where she lived most her life.
Born in Helsingborg in 1906, Grossman’s emergence into the design world began with a yearlong woodworking apprenticeship in her hometown, followed by a scholarship to attend the renowned Stockholm arts institution (today the Konstfack). In 1933, Grossman opened her own shop and workspace along with classmate Erik Ullrich, and in the same year took second place for furniture design from the Swedish Society of Industrial Design, making her the first woman to receive an award in the category.
In an attempt to escape the war, Grossman and her husband Billy Grossman, a renowned English jazzman, left for California in 1940. She opened Magnusson-Grossman Studio in Los Angeles, a Scandi-centric shop on Rodeo Drive that attracted a star clientele, including fellow Swedes Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, as well as man-about-town Frank Sinatra. Blond and blue-eyed, Grossman’s striking appearance in combination with her vivacious personality made it easy for the young designer to find her place in the Hollywood set.
However, it was through her lighting and furniture commissions for some of California’s top furniture manufacturers of the time – Sherman Bertram, Martin Brattrud, Barker Bros., Richard O. Smith and Glen of California – that Grossman made a significant impact on American Modernism. Her most iconic pieces are the Grasshopper and Cobra floor lamps, which were among the first pieces to introduce bullet-shaped shades and the ball-joint mechanism. Both were exhibited at the 1950s Good Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa).
Her 1952 “62 series” – a witty reference to the collection being a decade ahead of its time – further displayed Grossman’s unique Scandinavia-meets-mid-century-California modernism aesthetic. The furniture pieces contrasted natural American Walnut with glossy black plastic laminate, and featured the small ball feet that would become one of her signatures. However successful, Grossman still had to contend with working in a male-dominated industry. “The only advantage a man has in furniture designing is his greater physical strength,” she told American Artist magazine in 1951. This fierce independence and can-do spirit continued into her architecture.
Designing at least 14 residences between 1949-1959, her homes were defined by their diminutive scale (at less than 1,500 square feet) and lightness of form. Her “glass boxes on stilts” in particular followed the Los Angeles-based Case Study House program, an experiment in creating efficient and inexpensive housing after the War. The residences were built on challenging slopes – deemed ‘problem sites’ by other architects in the area – and featured built-ins, strong materials and the characteristic modernist open floor plan concept. (Though at least 10 remain standing, the buildings are also preserved through the photographs of legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman.)
Despite the success of Grossman’s career, which spanned two continents and nearly 40 years, producing a significant impact on both Swedish modernism and the California mid-century modernist style, the prolific designer quietly retired in the mid-1960s. She spent the remainder of her life in San Diego out of the public eye.
The first major retrospective of Grossman’s work launched only in 2010, by the Swedish Museum of Architecture and New York’s R 20th Century. The title, “A Car and Some Shorts,” references Grossman’s response to a San Francisco newspaper when asked what would be her first purchases in her new home. The exhibit traveled around Europe and the U.S, reviving interest in her work.
In 2011, Denmark-based design house GUBI reissued several of her pieces, including the Grasshopper and Cobra lamps – previously out of production for more than 50 years. Grossman’s highly collectible pieces are now sold at auction houses around the world. In 2012, a 1940s floor lamp closing at $37, 500 marked a record sale – proving the value of this mid-century design pioneer continues to rise.
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Leading image: Table lamps by Grossman from 1940s-50s. (Photo by Sherry Griffin, courtesy R 20th Century)