A Leading Light, Rediscovered:
Greta Grossman’s Designs for Living
By Nina Stoller-Lindsey
Greta Magnusson Grossman may not be a household name, but her distinctive designs are somehow familiar. There’s the Grasshopper, a three-legged floor lamp whose sleekness and ability to direct light where needed, with minimal glare, by way of a rotating conical shade, has bred a steady stream of knockoffs since it was introduced in 1948. And the Cobra, a compact table lamp, whose flexible tubular arm—a then groundbreaking application of industrial design that’s become par for the course in contemporary lighting—earned it a 1950 “Good Design” award and a place in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
“Greta was one of those designers who was incredibly influential in her day and was a highly regarded media darling, so it’s always been a bit of a mystery why she disappeared into obscurity for so many years,” says Evan Snyderman, co-founder of R & Company, the New York gallery that acquired the Grossman estate in 1998.
An interior and industrial designer as well as an architect, Grossman enjoyed a thriving career in her native Sweden throughout the 1920s and 30s, before moving to Los Angeles with her husband, jazz bandleader Billy Grossman, in 1940 and opening a highly publicized shop on Rodeo Drive. It was only the year before, when Alvar Aalto built his Finnish Pavilion for the World’s Fair, that America had gotten its first glimpse of Scandinavian modernism. Consequently, Grossman’s “Swedish modern furniture, rugs, lamps, and other home furnishings” (as billed on her business card) were the first such designs her wealthy clientele had encountered. “We can really credit her with bringing this aesthetic to America,” Snyderman explains. “At the time there were no stores selling Danish or Finnish or Swedish furniture. It was a really important bridge that she started.”
Her work was an instant hit with the Southern California set, and so was she. A formidable blonde with a sense of humor to match, Grossman was solicited for hundreds of interviews in design and style publications, such as American Artist and the Los Angeles Times Home Magazine. In 1947, she was invited to design the furniture floor at Barker Brothers’ Modern Shop, one of the first department stores dedicated to modern design and L.A.’s most frequented destination for home furnishings. Meanwhile, her designs found their way into the homes of Frank Sinatra, Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, and Joan Fontaine. But then in 1969, she moved to San Diego with her ailing husband, gave up her architecture and design practice, and spent the remaining 30 years of her life painting. “It’s hard to say if she distanced herself purposefully or just decided she was done. But some of her closest friends in the area didn’t even know about her work,” Snyderman explains, suggesting that this about-face can, at least, partly account her lack of recognition. “And then there’s the fact that she was a woman. As we know a lot of women are simply left out of the conversation.”
But being a woman sometimes worked to Grossman’s advantage. Her more nuanced understanding of domestic spaces meant that her designs were often better suited to the demands of daily living than those of her male peers. “No architect should be allowed to design a kitchen without running a household for a couple of months!” she argued. “Please, keep us from the ‘rationalized’ kitchens with all their expensive and fancy appliances but without decent cupboards for this and that.” While the laminate that tops most of Grossman’s cabinets, and is one of her most iconic stylistic elements, is often noted for the stark contrast it creates with wood, it was chosen, in large part, because it was easy to clean, affording the modern housewife more time to pursue other activities.
The past several years have seen a renewed interest in Grossman’s work. Institutions including the Pasadena Museum of California Art and Stockholm’s Arkitekturmuseet have honored her with retrospectives, while Danish design company Gubi reissued her Cobra and Grasshopper lamps. Her work remains relevant because it is functional, but also well-crafted and playful. Her pioneering use of iron and natural wood resonates with seekers of a local-artisan aesthetic, while her striking use of color reflects a brighter palette that’s coming back into favor. “Everything is a little bit off, a little bit quirky, powerful but proportionally delicate,” Snyderman says of her work. “It’s timeless, and fun, and accessible, and that’s what people are drawn to.”