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At the beginning of the 20th century, mostly men dictated the history of architecture and design. Why not, when they had extraordinary ideas? But immediately after the First World War, one woman found her way towards the design scene, walking the scene bravely. Greta Grossman was a rarity who recognized something that others didn’t, an unmistakable blend of two unsurpassed styles.
Greta Magnusson-Grossman was born in 1906 in Helsingborg, a coastal town in the south of Sweden. She grew up in cabinet making family so she was familiarized with wood as material since she was a child. She was fond of studying different ways of processing wood which was unusual for a young girl. One thought: “to be a step ahead” led her through work even when she was uncomfortable for being the only woman in the workshop. We can surely say that she was ahead of her contemporaries because she didn’t let her prejudices ruin her dreams.
When she was 22 years old, she went to Stockholm where she entered the University of Arts, Crafts and Design also known as the Konstfack in order to study theoretical side of the profession as well. After she mastered basics of furniture design, she continued her way through architecture and went to Royal Academy of Technology. She discovered her tendencies toward technical drawing and learnt about textile and ceramics characteristics.
The following period of her life was marked with numerous accomplishments like the Swedish Society of Industrial Design award for furniture design or acknowledgements like Combination Furniture given by Stockholm Craft Association. She was the first woman in Sweden who got an acknowledgement like this, which affected her reputation in the country. That was when she got a scholarship from Swedish Society of Industrial Design which enabled her to travel Europe and note her observations. She encountered different cultures and styles and met one of the most popular industrial designers – Gio Ponti.
After returning to her homeland, she designed a bed for famous Swedish princess which brought her great press popularity. At the beginning of 1930’s she founded company called “Studio” together with her colleague Erik Ullrich. It was actually a juncture of a shop and a workshop that released work exposed in museums and galleries. In 1933, she married British jazz musician Billy Grossman after what a turnover in her career followed.
The situation in Europe caused by the Second World War made Greta and her husband move to Los Angeles. She started a new company in Beverly Hills, dealing with furniture design and lighting. “Swedish modern furniture, rugs, lamps and other home furnishings.” was written on Grossman’s business card. Rodeo Drive shop presented the beauties of Scandinavian design to Modernism scene in California. They sold products to famous companies like Sherman Bertram, Martin Brattrud, Cal-Mode and Barker Brothers’ Modern Shop. Besides the collaboration with prominent companies she decorated the interior of popular Swedish actresses who lived in Hollywood like Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman. A certain period of her creativity was marked by collaboration with excellent talents like Isamu Noguchi and Charles Eames. Her work was really a kind of rarity in California since an approach like that was still unknown to American West Coast.
Was there a difference between her approach towards European design and the USA design? Yes, it wasn’t the Swedish industrial design any more but its mixture with American Modernism. This was a logical move because Modernism was at its peak when Greta Grossman came to America. Her inspiration at that time was Bauhaus and its members Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. That was what she wanted – to be ahead of her contemporaries which this juncture literally showed.
The decade between 1949 and 1959 was marked with projecting major number of objects which would become revolutionary for her career. Over 10 houses were perfectly placed and fit into steep and inaccessible Los Angeles landscape. In free style, they laid tightly on the slopes having mesmerizing view. For a while Greta worked with famous American landscape architect – Garrett Eckbo for whom it is believed to have contributed her managing to adapt houses in existing locations.
Grossman’s design skills were defined as a matter of prestige and luxury, simplicity and boldness. Clear forms rejected decorations and pointed out the purity of form. A play of natural materials like stone and wood gave a new layer of beauty to these houses – the sincerity. Objects were made based on Case Study Houses, over 30 houses that were the experiments of American residential architecture. Arts & Architecture Magazine published the idea and the goal was to invent objects that were economical and cheap.
Greta Grossman recognized her own ability for shaping different pieces of furniture, from lamps, tables and cabinets to armchairs and sofas. Gräshoppa Floor Lamp and Cobra Table Lamp, her most famous pieces, describe her unique industrial design. The first one was designed in 1947 and was made of two parts. A steel stand of this lamp is slightly tilted with additional stability provided with two more legs placed opposite it. The bell-shaped shade is mounted to the stand with a ball joint in order to be able to rotate in different directions.
In the mid-20th century the Museum of Modern Art in New York awarded Greta Grossman for Cobra lamp’s design. A flexible tubular arm, which enables the rotation of the oval shade for 360 degrees is the essence of this lamp. Both lamps are elegant and light and in their silhouettes you can really recognize a snake moving. Both lamps can be purchased in different colors covered in matt varnish, which gives them a sophisticated look. This way, Grossman gave her customers the opportunity to vary from modernistic palette. When it comes to these pieces, there are many variations that we find today in the catalogue of Danish furniture manufacturer Gubi.
“Series 62” was designed in 1952. The elements got the name because they were considered to be ten years ahead their time. We recognize the joy of experimenting with materials in these pieces, wood combined with metal and plastic. Daring moves like these are something that is a common thing in contemporary design, but in the middle of the 20th century it was brave to “interbreed” these materials. Furniture of this series is a real harmony between American walnut and metal. Thin legs with their fragility seem as if table or dresser is floating. At their ends they were fixed with solid wooden balls, which enabled flooring to be preserved from damaging.
She described her work as an answer to the time she had lived in, without guessing that her pieces would be up-to-date even in the 21st century. Greta Grossman defined modern aesthetics in certain way, since furniture like that represents the main theme of fairs and congresses even today. We can describe her work as practical, comfortable and minimal because she gave moderation with simplicity and brought in expressiveness with the move. She was a significant figure in blending European and American trends into unrepeatable unity.
Regardless of the fact that new style appeared as a consequence of migrations to the USA, Grossman’s gift isn’t questioned. At the very end of her career, she was working at the University of California for six years and retired after that. When her career was at its peak, she decided to withdraw from the world of design. She moved to the south of California with her husband, northern from San Diego, where she spent the last 30 years of her life. After her withdrawal her life stayed unknown to public. The only thing that we know is that she enjoyed painting landscapes. Many people described her as “one of Modernism’s unsung heroes.” Why? Because her work deserves far more respect and fame than it ever had. How many iconic pieces would have left if Greta Grossman had stayed on the designers’ scene for a decade at least?
Featured image: Greta Grossman [Public domain]
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