Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism

Elaine and Alvin Lustig, Sunset Office, 1949. Collection of Elaine Lustig Cohen.
“A man’s house is his art,” Daniel S. Defenbacher, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, proclaimed in 1947: “At least a house is the nearest to art that most men will ever come.”1 Writing about the Walker’s new Idea House, a full-scale, fully furnished residence intended to persuade Americans to adopt modern architecture and design for their domestic environments, Defenbacher staked out an agenda that was personal and artistic. Built two years after the end of World War II, Idea House featured innovative glass-walled facades, gleaming appliances, smooth plywood furniture, and built-in storage units that captured the nation’s fascination with new materials and technologies. Americans could afford these innovations through an unprecedented postwar economic boom that promised good design for all Americans, especially returning veterans and their families, who, through the recently passed GI Bill of Rights, were moving into new homes.

Idea House and the Walker’s postwar projects stood not only as milestones in the assimilation of modern American domestic architecture and design, but also as reflections of larger transformations affecting Jews in the United States. In the aftermath of World War II, the hub of world Jewry shifted from Europe to America, President Harry Truman acknowledged the state of Israel, and popular Hollywood movies decried anti-Semitism. Jews themselves were in the process of being “jet-propelled,” in the words of two observers, “from the periphery of American life, an immigrant, low-income, embattled, defensive group to a rising middle class status, in a community of highly educated, mobile, culturally advanced pre-dominantly native-born Americans.”2

Ernest Sohn, made by Hall China Company for Ernest Sohn Creations, “Esquire” coffee pot set and casserole dishes, 1963, stoneware, courtesy Earl Marin. Photograph: John Halpern.

In addition to the Walker Art Center, two other American organizations stand out as programs not only meant to promote modern residential design, but to also embrace Jewish architects and designers: the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) and the Case Study House Program in Los Angeles. Like the Walker, they focused on the postwar veteran. MoMA featured a series of full-scale demonstration houses in its garden, as well as exhibitions of modern household products and books. On the West Coast, the Case Study Program, the brainchild of Arts & Architecture magazine, sponsored the design of thirty-six houses over a two-decade period starting in 1945. So successful were efforts like those of the Walker, MoMA, and the Case Study House Program in integrating Jews into the mainstream of American modern design that by 1961 noted Jewish architect Percival Goodman could assert that in the United States the centuries-old line dividing people by race and religion had been replaced by a new boundary between a culturally progressive avant-garde and a retrograde rearguard. “Avant-garde,” Goodman noted, “belongs neither to Gentile nor Jew, but is the plight of everybody who must rebel in order to breathe again, and in that number there are numerous Jews.”3

Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism explores the role of Jewish architects and designers in the creation of a distinctly modern American domestic landscape. Their work encompassed the full range of the domestic environment—from the large-scale subdivision to the single-family house, the furnishings and housewares within, as well as the marketing and press images that broadcast this new modern home across America.

George Nelson & Associates, Irving Harper, Vitra, Marshmallow Sofa, 1956. Metal, upholstery, and paint. 31 ¼ in. x 52 ½ in. x 31 ¼ in.

The roster of these talented Jewish architects and designers came from diverse backgrounds, bringing the perspectives of both Americans and Europeans to shape the midcentury modern American home—among them Anni Albers, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra; as well as others whose fascinating life stories and important contribution have received much less critical attention, such as Ruth Adler Schnee, Marguerite Wildenhain, and Alex Steinweiss. Brimming with a dazzling array of vintage furnishings, textiles, wallpapers, ceramics, photographs, and ephemera, Designing Home focuses on more than forty architects and designers who helped spark America’s embrace of midcentury modernism and its repertoire of glass-walled houses and furnishings in vivid colors and bold patterns.

1 D.S. Defenbacher, “A Man’s House Is His Art,” Everyday Art Quarterly, Fall 1947, 1.

2 Eugene J. Lipman and Albert Vorspan, A Tale of Ten Cities: The Triple Ghetto in American Religious Life (New York: Union of American Congregations, 1962), 22-23, quoted in Susan G. Solomon, Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture: Mikveh Israel and the Midcentiury American Synagogue (Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press and University Press of New England, 2009), 10.

3 Percival Goodman, “The Jews in Architecture,” in Cecil Roth (ed.), Jewish Art: An Illustrated History (New York, Toronto, and London: McGraw-Hill Book Company), 730.

About the Author
Lily Siegel is Associate Curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum.


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