Greta Magnusson-Grossman is best known as an industrial designer, but she was also one of a few female architects contributing to the evolution of mid-century modern houses in Los Angeles in the 1950s.
Up until the early 2000s Grossman remained fairly under recognised despite the contribution she made to arts and architecture. She was a two-time recipient of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Good Design” award and a highly influential figure in the Southern California design movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Early Life and Influences
Greta Grossman’s work began to receive recognition in her native Sweden in the 1930s after she was awarded the second prize from the Stockholm Craft Association. She ran a successful store and workshop in Stockholm prior to fleeing war torn Europe with her husband Billy Grossman.
Grossman’s work was reflective of the changes taking place in Europe in the 1930s. Fellow Swede, architect Gunnar Aspland’s work at the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, would have undoubtedly had an impression on Grossman. Aspland’s Paradise Restaurant was a dramatic about turn for an architect who’s work had been characterised by it’s neo-classicism up to that point. It was this new architecture that interested Grossman and that would influence her work throughout her life.
The exhibition speaks out for joyful and spontaneous everyday life. And consistently propagates a healthy and unpretentious lifestyle based on economic realities — Alvar Aalto
It is this new movement of functionalism in architecture that Grossman adopted in her early career. Swedish and Danish Functionalism focused entirely on function at the expense of aesthetic, characterised by flat roofs and sharp angles — all forms and ideas that would be adopted into California modern. Despite this lack of aesthetic interest by functionalists, Californian Modern and other modernist movements have come to define their age through this stylistic approach.
Grossman left Europe by way of the Soviet Union and Japan and sailed to San Francisco with her jazz player husband, Billy. Questioned by a reporter about what she planned to do next, Grossman is famously understood to have said that she would get herself ‘…a car and a pair of shorts’.
Grossman settled in Los Angeles where she integrated quickly with a growing group of architects, designers and photographers developing a unique Californian style of modernism. By 1953 she had completed a residential commission for the Harts and in 1958 she completed the Hurley Residence. The latter was occupied by its original owners up until their deaths in 2009 and 2013 respectively when the house then went on the open market for the first time.
The Hurley Residence was Grossman’s largest commission and considered to be her most important architectural work. The house is characterised by its sweeping cantilevers and connections with the exterior — a feature that became predominant in many Californian mid-century modern houses.
Grossman filed the house with modernist furniture including pieces by Hans Wegner and Robsjohn-Gibbings, auctioned this year by Sotheby’s as lots’ 98 and 99, forming part of their 20th Century Design sale.
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,”- Greta Grossman — American Artist magazine in 1951.
Hurley Residence by Greta Magnusson-Grossman. From the book: A Car and Some Shorts. Photo by John Hartley
The Hurley Residence
Hurley, Mr. & Mrs. Joseph G. Residence (1958) — 3320 Wonder View Plaza, Hollywood
The Grossman Residence
Grossman, Greta Residence #2 (ca. 1956) — 9376 Claircrest Drive, Beverly Hills — Demolished
Grossman’s industrial design education and influences helped her to craft lighting and furniture that reflected a Hollywood age. Most of her lighting was commissioned by Californian furniture manufacturers of the time — Sherman Bertram, Martin Brattrud, Barker Bros., Richard O. Smith and Glen of California.
Her most iconic lighting designs are the Grasshopper and Cobra floor lamps, which were among the first pieces to introduce the characteristic Grossman style bullet-shaped shades.
Her design drawings were exhibited by The Drawing Centre in New York in October of 2008 at an exhibition entitled ‘Greta Magnusson Grossman: Furniture and Lighting’. In it, the drawings reflect a playful character, often giving personality and lifelike charm to her works. The names she gave for her pieces further point to this idea of her designs having a lifelike quality.
Danish design house GUBI now produces several of her pieces, including the Grasshopper and Cobra table and floor lamps that had been out of production for more than 50 years. These were among the first lamps to employ bullet shaped, directional shades and flexible arms.
Grossman believed modern design was “…not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions — developed out of our preferences for living in a modern way.”
Grossman’s work is gaining much more exposure and her work is now being recognised for the great contribution she made to arts and architecture in the 1940s and 50s and on post-war American design in general. 10 of her houses still exist today and much of her original pieces are highly coveted when they come up at auction.
Grossman retired to San Diego in the 1960s and faded away into relative obscurity. She died in 1999