Thursday, June 27, 2013

MAGNUSSON-GROSSMAN, GRETA: A Pioneering Modernist (c) By Polly Guerin

Greta Magnusson Grossman
In the hallmark of women designers of the Deco era, Swedish born, Greta Magnusson Grossman’s work may never have achieved the same level of fame as that of many of her contemporaries, but she was a woman determined to succeed in a world dominated by men. A Swedish furniture designer and architect her work appeared alongside other midcentury greats such as Charles and Ray Eames and her prolific oeuvre continues to attract a loyal following. She designed in diverse genres with achievements in industrial design, interior design and architecture. Later in life she received two prestigious Good Design Awards from MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and yet for a time she faded into relative obscurity, until now, as some of her iconic pieces are being brought back into production.  
SUCCESS IN SWEDEN In 1930 Greta opened her first store/workshop called
American Modern: Lightweight Furniture
“Studio” in Stockholm with classmate Erik Ullrich, where she took numerous commissions, including a crib for Sweden’s Princess Birgitta.  Accolades and recognition poured in and she became the first woman to receive a prize for furniture design from the Swedish Society of Industrial Design. Greta’s success followed her to California and by this time she had married jazz bandleader Billy Grossman. Greta opened her second shop, Magnusson-Grossman Studio, on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. Her shop with its avant guard design appealed to the rich and famous and  became  popular with design cognoscenti and stars of the silver screen like Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine and Gracie Allen . 
WEIGHTLESS DESIGN Celebrities were not her main clients. Grossman’s compact, functional and visually lightweight modern aesthetic appealed to a previously ignored, but every-growing demographic: single, savvy, career-minded women. Her walnut and iron desk for Glenn of California, an icon of California modern, reflects Greta’s ability to mix heavy materials in designs that seem weightless; even a box for supplies appears to float above the work surface.  Some pieces, like her Cobra Lamp has recently been brought back into production by Gubi.  Among her clients were several famous furniture companies, including Barker Brothers and Ralph O. Smith &Co. and Glenn of California.
AMERICAN MODERNISM  In California Greta became a prominent figure in the experimental architecture world and was known for building homes on “difficult plots.” She designed at least fourteen homes defined by their diminutive scale and lightness of form, some balanced perfectly on the edge of a hillside. Only several of these houses do remain but they are a testament to Greta’s use of rich woods, and natural light to create warmth. She crafted these homes of classic modern materials like steel and stone. Her first villa in Beverly Hills was a major breakthrough for her as an architect and published in the magazine Arts & Architecture.
GRETA MAGNUSSON-GROSSMAN:  Recently renewed interest in this pioneering modernist sheds light on a female designer who has become an integral part of the design genre called “American Modernism.”

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Susan Claassen Channeling Edith Head
If you are an aficionado of old movies (circa 1927 through1982) the chances are you probably have seen the fashionable costumes, worn by the stars,  that dominated the silver screen for sixty years, but you may not have realized that the tantalizing garments were created by the quintessential costume designer, Edith Head, who worked for the top Movie Studios throughout her career.  I met Edith Head, when she was Paramount’s chief designer, par excellence, in Hollywood and remember her classic black bangs and big eyeglasses staring at me with inner calm. She was modest and amazing and her design oeuvre was a prolific testament to her genius. However, Edith Head could be all but forgotten today, but one enterprising performance artist, Susan Claassen, is channeling the life of Edith Head in solo performances around the country in a show entitled “A Conversation with Edith Head.” 
BOOK INSPIRATION Ms. Claassen’s show does Edith Head a qualified service by dressing the part while her impersonation of the design star is candidly true-to-life.  Ms. Claassen was inspired to write and star in her show while watching a TV biography of Ms. Head.  Ms. Claassen said, “Not only do I bear a striking resemblance to Edith, but we share the same love for clothes and fashion. There are many myths about her but she was a discreet, tenacious personality. She knew which star’s hips needed clever disguising and made sure that those legendary stars always looked the part.” Much of the dialogue in “A Conversation with Edith Head" comes directly from the famed designer including Edith’s own saying; “Good clothes are not a matter of good luck.”.
DRESSING THE STARS Head outfitted a roster of stars that chronicles Hollywood’s golden age, and she was best known as a brilliant problem solver. She stitched Dorothy Lamour into her sarong; created Margo Channing’s glamorous silk gown worn by Bette Davis when she delivers her famed line, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”  I remember best Elizabeth Taylor’s gorgeous white strapless gown in the movie, “A Place in the Sun.” The gown was immediately copied by clothing manufacturers just in time to satisfy every young girl’s desire to wear it to her prom. The list of Head’s design proliferation overwhelms but another highlight was Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief and Sean Connery in “The Man Who Would be King.” No wonder Edith Head won a record eight Academy Awards for costume design and to amaze even further she earned 35 Oscar nominations.
CLAASSEN’S VERSION The performance artist Susan Claassen does a remarkable take on Edith Head, one that captures the audience with her engaging performance. Claassen cultivated Edith’s distinct look: round glasses, severe bangs, and crisp, tailored clothes. She is an artist who has researched her subject to authenticate Edith and highlights the famed costume designer’s career channeling her life with tempered dialogue. "Conservation with Edith Head” premiered at the Invisible Theater in Tucson, Arizona and has given more than 250 performances coast to coast in the United States. The production has also toured internationally including Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia to a sold out audience.
Susan Claassen’s show is presented in association with the Motion Picture and Television Fund and is based on the book, “Edith Head’s Hollywood,” by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro. Claassmen will be showcasing Edith Head on June 21 for the fashion committee at the National Arts Club in New York City and has upcoming performances at Citrus College, Glendora, CA, October 2013 and Sheldon Theatre, St. Louis, MO, December 2013and will be on the North Carolina Stage May/June 2014.