Greta Magnusson Grossman believed simple, elegant interior design and furniture design would liberate women from the drudges of endless housework.
The Sweden-born, LA-based Grossman also believed strongly in a certain design for living, and was eager to change Americans’ cluttered, complicated lives for the better. In 1951, the famed modern designer sat down with a reporter at the American Artist.
“Most contemporary homes must get along without servants,” she said in the interview. “So, the modern architect and designer must provide average modern housekeepers with an environment that can be kept clean without a retinue of butlers and maids… She requires simple, polished surfaces on her tables… chests, etc. No intricate carvings please, says the modern housekeeper who does her own work.”
Grossman was well known to many readers, and was legendary within the design community as a groundbreaking industrial designer, furniture maker, interior decorator, and architect. For forward-thinking Angelenos, her good design ethos was gospel, and she was a glamorous celebrity for four decades in modernist circles. But her revolutionary designs were forgotten for decades as the fame of contemporaries like Craig Ellwood and Charles and Ray Eames grew.
Brett Littman, director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum and former executive director of the Drawing Center, which mounted the exhibit “Greta Magnusson Grossman: Furniture and Lighting” in 2008, notes that when the show debuted, many folks in the design community didn't even know who Grossman was.
This state of affairs is slowly changing, though not nearly fast enough for enthusiasts.
Greta Magnusson was born in Helsingborg, Sweden, in 1906, to a family of builders. From an early age she was fascinated by woodworking, and at 19 she apprenticed as a carpenter to get a feel for how furniture was made. Attending Stockholm’s Art Industrial School from 1931 to 1933, she became one of the leading lights of Swedish Moderne, a purposeful, unadorned style that took delight in functionality and whimsical forms. Funny, charming, and brutally honest, she opened Studio, in Stockholm, a wildly successful store showcasing her furniture and industrial designs.
Unusually for a woman of her time, Grossman won many design awards in her native Sweden and was even commissioned to design a bassinet for the Swedish Princess Birgitta, a gift from the Handcraft Association of Sweden. “The basket was of woven ivory cellophane, with an intricately woven canopy in ivory and blue, embroidered with silver royal crowns,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “The eiderdown cover was blue silk, with hand-embroidered royal crowns on pillow and sheets.”
After she married British jazz musician Billy Grossman, nicknamed the “Benny Goodman of Sweden,” the couple went on a harrowing journey through Russia to escape Nazi Europe. They arrived in Los Angeles in late 1940, the wry Grossman quipping to reporters that all she needed to start her new Southern California life was “a car and some shorts.”
The Grossmans wasted no time, opening a studio on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, with Billy acting as her business manager. From the start, Grossman’s designs were met with fanfare from a city increasingly enamored with European modernism. Littman notes that Grossman merged the Scandinavian Good Design movement with the American ideal of casual living, which Evan Snyderman, the owner of the gallery R & Company, has called “warm Scandinavian minimalism.”
“The Scandinavian Good Design movement really comes out of social thinking, about good design for people—we should make beautiful objects that are affordable, that people can put in their homes,” Littman says. “The American modernist movement also has some of those same ideas, but maybe a little bit less of the kind of social democracy concept behind it.”
Her first American commission was a curving “kidney” couch designed for the manufacturer David J. Saltman. “The sofa really spells America, my adopted country, to me because it was the very first piece I designed when I first arrived and it happened right here in Los Angeles,” she told the LA Times in 1954. This sleek yet highly functional couch was a hit with the cafe society Grossman catered to.
In 1941, the LA Times noted that the couch made “a comfortable conversation piece for three, eliminating all the neck craning and leaning forward that usually are the case when three people try to talk sitting in a row.”
Grossman quickly attracted a celebrity clientele that included Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Fontaine, and Gracie Allen. She also became an in-demand designer for large furniture companies including Barker Brothers (she also staged rooms inside their stores), Modern Line, Glenn of California, and Sherman Bertram. She was also celebrated for more superficial reasons—her looks. According to a reporter for the LA Times, Grossman was an attractive, charismatic genius of the “vital blonde type.”
Throughout the 1940s and early ’50s, Grossman designed a series of iconic furniture pieces and lighting fixtures both for private clients and large, nationwide firms. As she worked more in America, she became even more of an essentialist than she already was. For example, her coffee tables—including the cheeky, deceptively simple ironing board coffee table—often seemed to float on very thin legs. “The style doesn’t really evolve, it actually kind of gets refined,” Littman says. “She kind of simplifies.”
Two of Grossman’s most enduring designs are the modernist Cobra lamp (1948) and the spindly Grasshopper lamp (which cost only $19 when it debuted in 1949), both of which are now ubiquitous in offices around the world.
“She understood the kind of physics of light, and was able to really harness that, and make interesting objects that are articulated, and moved, and at least had heads that could rotate so that you can throw light in different ways, depending on if you’re lying on your couch, or repositioning the light to light up the rest of the room—you have different options,” Littman says.
Littman singles out the Grasshopper for praise for its animal physiology: a light atop three spindly legs that twist like those of the grasshopper. “That really gives a sense of the eloquence, and her sensibility about gravity, about weight, about things thick and thin. She plays a lot with things that seem like they’re going to not be able to be stable, but that are stable,” he says.
It is clear Grossman felt at home and in demand in her adopted city. By 1947, she was a booster for Los Angeles, claiming to the LA Times after a trip to Sweden that Southern California was “100 percent ahead of that country, both in the production and use of modern furniture.”
In 1952, Grossman designed a celebrated line of furniture for Glenn of California, titled the 62 Series, because its designs seemed a decade advanced in term of innovation. According to journalist David A. Keeps, the collection included desks, dressers, and tables designed with varied materials, including Formica and walnut.
“What I like about her work is the kind of simplicity of it, the sophistication of the engineering, and aesthetically, sometimes they can kind of just disappear into the landscape of your apartment,” Littman says. “They don’t necessarily call a lot of attention to themselves, but they’re all very functional and useful.”
The multi-talented Grossman also designed interiors for cosmopolitan Angelenos, including fellow European emigre Vicki Baum, author of the wildly popular Grand Hotel (which was adapted into the MGM blockbuster movie). In 1947, a reporter for the LA Times described the office Grossman designed for Baum, which sounds like every writer’s absolute dream:
The typewriter desk is at a comfortable height… The left built-in bookcase becomes a circular, four-tiered corner table with narrow spaces between the shelves where the writer can push things aside at the end of the day. Along the walls are shelves for reference books, the top shelf ingeniously scooped out to hold first, second and third copies of the manuscript in work. A small table and two chairs at the circular window are convenient when a secretary is working with her…along the inner wall of the room… is a small closed cupboard containing a hot plate and percolator for afternoon tea or coffee. This room also serves as Miss Baum’s bedroom, so that she can write far into the night if she is in the mood, without disturbing the rest of the household.
The ingenious simplicity of Baum’s office reflected Grossman’s belief that furniture should not crowd a room but be used sparingly for maximum function and minimum fuss. “If you are planning for small quarters, don’t overcrowd,” she said to the LA Times in 1949. “Filling every inch of the room with furniture may seem to avoid wasted space—until you find much cannot be used anyway.”
By the late 1940s, Grossman began to put her architectural beliefs into practice.
She became the only female architect in Los Angeles to run her own business. “Home should spell sanctuary and happiness, not a place from which to escape,” she told the LA Times. “An environment of simplicity can produce such an ideal result. In the final analysis, however, people make their homes, not the architect or decorator. We can start the family off on the road to living by creating the setting but the family itself has to make that setting become a living and breathing thing.”
In 1948, Grossman created her own sanctuary high on a hillside in Beverly Hills. Used as a calling card for her architectural design, the three-level, cantilevered home was described by A Guide to Architecture in Los Angeles and Southern California as “a simple Modern brown box sheathed in vertical board-and-batten.”
But it was the details that made the Grossman home exceptional. Like all of the homes she would design, the house had no hallways, as she felt they were pointless and dark. The home was filled with multi-purpose built-ins, including “tidy cupboards” in the kitchen that held glass jars filled with herbs and spices. The floorplan was fluid, with decorated screens, movable walls, and accordion doors. Unlike many modernist homes, the house was filled with color, with accents of mahogany, redwood and elm, blue rugs, and black asphalt tile. A den-guest room was accented with yellow, copper, and a couch covered in blue fabric dotted with white stars.
Large glass windows offered spectacular views of the city below, and a wraparound deck took advantage of the outdoor California lifestyle. The exterior was also decorated with hardboard in various colors of yellow, gray, aqua, and white.
Always very definite in her beliefs, she described her home in specific terms. “Nordic, yes— but not Swedish peasant,” Grossman said to the LA Times in 1950. “There is a big difference between the sophisticated modern homes of Sweden, with their natural wood paneling, fieldstone, textured fabrics and subtle colors, and the bright little peasant style houses, gaily painted in primitive designs… Contrary to popular conception, typical Swedish houses are not all quaint and picturesque.”
According to the Los Angeles Conservancy, over the next 10-odd years, Grossman would design 14 small modern homes in LA County. Many of these houses, built on structurally complicated hillside lots, foreshadowed the tiny house movement of today, featuring built-ins, multipurpose rooms, and ample opportunities for outdoor and indoor living.
The few still standing include the Jim Backus House in Bel Air and the Frances Nelson Houses in the Cahuenga Pass. The Backus House is a boxy, modern home with floor-to-ceiling walls overlooking the city below. The cantilevered Nelson Houses also have spectacular views, as well as large decks to enjoy the SoCal sunshine. All have deceptively basic floorplans that make complicated life easier.
In 1954, Grossman sat down with a reporter at the Los Angeles Times. “Simplicity must be the keynote today in any development of the pattern of living,” she said, in her generally commanding way. “We cannot live in the... Victorian style of yesteryear and expect to survive the pressures that go with modern life. We need to free ourselves from all décor that may hamper our outlook, if not our actions.”
Grossman also paid it forward, serving as the vice president of the California branch of the Association of Women in Architecture and teaching at UCLA and the Art Center in Pasadena. By 1960, however, she seems to have become increasingly disillusioned with both the design world and the American public’s ability to appreciate good design. “I’m afraid that what I have to say is negative as regards present furniture design,” she told the LA Times in 1960. “We have fallen into a period of decadence. Designers have gotten into a rut. There is an awful copying of dead style. We are falling back 100 to 200 years for design themes.”
Grossman and her husband were tired of Los Angeles and their existence as jetsetters in the heady midcentury world of design. In 1966, they moved to Encinitas and retired from public life. Grossman spent her time painting watercolors and said nothing to her new friends about her former career. “I think she was pretty self-deprecating in her approach,” Littman says. He recalls a story he has heard about Grossman seeing a headshot that had been taken of her. “She drew glasses and a mustache on it, and on the back was ‘Do not use.’”
Billy Grossman died in 1979. Greta Magnusson Grossman died 20 years later, just missing the rediscovery and reissuing of her work in the 2000s. A retrospective premiered in 2010 at the Swedish Museum of Architecture (or ArkDes) in Stockholm. The complementary book was also released, Greta Magnusson Grossman: A Car and Some Shorts. In 2011, Danish design brand Gubi reissued the Grasshopper lamp though Design Within Reach; it sells for $580 to $1,080. Her original works are now coveted by collectors.
The mystery of why Grossman turned her back on the design world has never been completely solved. Perhaps it is because she was simply done, ready to start a new chapter. Always infinitely practical, Grossman seems to have had little interest in living in the fussy past.