The current retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, “Greta Magnusson Grossman — A Car and Some Shorts,” offers a much more comprehensive view of the prolific output one of the primary exponents of the gospel of “less-is-more.” (The title is what she answered to the question of what Grossman would need before coming to California.) Through her iconic “cobra” and “grasshopper” lamps for Ralph O. Smith and Barker Bros., her rectangular homes on hillsides, low-standing furniture, use of sliding partitions for walls, and her functional cabinetry, Magnusson taught the country a new way to define elegance.
She was the first female graduate from the Stockholm School of Industrial Design; Bauhaus architecture titans Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe were strong inspirations for Magnusson's building designs. In all applications, she felt that style had to grow out of function. In the Pasadena museum show (a traveling exhibition organized by the Swedish Museum of Architecture and on view through Feb. 24), her work makes few, if any, concessions to the decorative.
She had a vision of austerity that was born out in the sharp right angles of her homes, which always seem to perch on hills, held aloft by pylons (architectural drawings are generously displayed in this show). It echoes in her credenzas with black steel tops melded to walnut wood bodies. The spherical handles, like the piece itself, draw almost no attention to themselves.
Charles Eames has been credited with translating good modernist European design to American applications. For designer and architect Greta Magnusson (1906-1999), Scandinavian Modern was her primary language. She immigrated to America in 1940, and while she was not alone, Magnusson epitomized and took full advantage of the unique synthesis of art and industry that occurred in Los Angeles from roughly 1945 to 1965.
Magnusson (her husband was bandleader Billy Grossman, the Benny Goodman of Sweden) seems to have been made for Southern California. The wartime industrial boom with its astonishing output and technical advancements placed SoCal at the center of the burgeoning aerospace industry.
Like the Eameses and other designers, she used new processes to combine man-made and natural materials in her sleek designs.
The one effusive detail in the Magnusson show occurs in her “ironing board” coffee table. It sits low and is roughly the shape of a giant guitar pick. The wood is hand-finished walnut. Its beautiful Rorschach Test grain and smooth surface poses a severe challenge to the museum's “no-touching” rule.
Her influence reached into places where the highbrow art and design magazines (like Art & Architecture, which championed her) didn't even consider, but the show illustrates Magnusson's surprising portents.
Yes, her gooseneck table lamps with the conical shades were bastardized by any number of retail sources and disseminated widely. So too does a 1934 bookcase use grids of vertical grooves on its inside uprights, holding shelves in place by pegs, an IKEA staple for 40 years (Magnusson was probably one of the first to employ it).
But anyone who ever sleepwalked through a junior high school science fair will smile in recognition at Magnusson's open-air room screen.
With primary color wooden spheres suspended by a network of diagonal wires, it looks like a prime source of an untold number of Styrofoam planetary tableaux projects.
Where: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 East Union St., Pasadena
When: Through Feb. 24. Open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday
More info: (626) 568-3665, www.pmcaonline.org
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.