This is the latest installment of our Designing Women series. Previously, we profiled the graphic designer Elaine Lustig Cohen.
Portrait of Greta Magnusson Grossman, circa 1949, courtesy the Greta Grossman Archives, R & Company, New York
When Greta Magnusson Grossman relocated from her native Sweden to California in 1940, she told the San Francisco Examiner that her first priorities were “buying a car and some shorts.” Grossman’s quick read on the California lifestyle served her well as she set up her design business in Los Angeles and began to meld her Scandinavian sensibilities with the midcentury design movement that was brewing in the city. Her subsequent furniture designs perfectly encapsulated the experimentation and inventiveness of the era, and her interiors and architectural projects translated the SoCal spirit into light-filled, casually luxurious spaces.
Grossman had graduated from Stockholm’s School of Industrial Design in 1931; two years after that, she became the first woman to receive an award from the Swedish Society of Industrial Design, for her furniture. With her design career taking off, Grossman opened her own store and workshop in Stockholm, called Studio, from which she sold housewares, lighting and custom furniture. Upon arriving in California, she set up a new shop on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, where she designed furniture for dozens of brands as well as lamps, interiors and custom furnishings for a mix of manufacturers and private clients. In a 1951 interview, Grossman memorably described the colliding Swedish and Californian influences in her furniture: “the general effect is one of mellow, golden surfaces, of lightness and airiness and informal comfort.”
Dresser by Grossman for Glenn of California; lamp by Grossman for Ralph O. Smith. Photograph by Sherry Griffin/R & Company Desk and chair by Grossman for Glenn of California; lamp by Grossman for Ralph O. Smith. Photograph by Sherry Griffin/R & Company
Leveraging her growing renown as an industrial designer, Grossman launched a simultaneous career in architecture, and from the 1940s until the ’60s she was the only woman in Los Angeles to run an independent architectural practice. According to the Los Angeles Conservancy, Grossman designed 14 homes in the LA area between 1949 and 1959, ten of which are still standing (one of her earliest projects was for Jim Backus, the actor who played Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island). Much of Grossman’s architecture aligns with the principles of the Case Study Houses, which promoted open floor plans, clean lines and affordable new building materials, and which often incorporated floor-to-ceiling glass walls and cantilevered decks to take advantage of stunning hillside views and California’s abundant good weather. Grossman would frequently complete her projects with custom textiles, ceramics, furniture and lighting fixtures, earning her great acclaim in the pages of Arts & Architecture magazine, which published many of her projects with photos by Julius Shulman.
A spread from the June 1951 issue of Arts & Architecture magazine featuring a unnamed Los Angeles house designed by Grossman with furnishings by Grossman and T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. Plans for an architecture project in Los Angeles, 1950s. Photograph by Joe Kramm, courtesy the Greta Grossman Archives, R & Company, New York
Given Grossman’s considerable success as an architect, it’s surprising that she’s best known today for her lamps. Her most famous, the three-legged, tubular-steel Grasshopper floor lamp, was first produced in 1947 by the Ralph O. Smith Company; although popular at the time, it has since secured its place in the midcentury-modern canon thanks to a reissue by the Danish manufacturer Gubi. (Originals are often found at auction for upwards of $13,000.)
Floor lamps, including the three-legged Grasshopper on the right, designed by Grossman for Ralph O. Smith. Photograph by Sherry Griffin/R & Company Drawing for a floor lamp for Ralph O. Smith, Los Angeles, 1950s. Courtesy the Greta Grossman Archives, R & Company, New York
Grossman’s Cobra table lamp has also been reissued, and the design has become familiar enough that it’s easy to miss just how innovative it was at the time. Grossman incorporated functions that we now take for granted in a desk lamp, like a flexible arm that pivots and a metal shade that can be rotated 360 degrees, allowing the user a simple way to control and reflect light. The Cobra lamp was selected in 1950 as part of the inaugural Good Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; a press release for the exhibition explained that the selected designs were “intended for present-day life, in regard to usefulness, to production methods and materials and to the progressive taste of the day.”
The oval lampshade’s resemblance to the hood of a snake gave the Cobra its name. Designed by Grossman for Ralph O. Smith, it was selected as a Good Design object by MoMA in 1950. Photograph by Sherry Griffin/R & Company Products from the Good Design exhibition received a sticker advertising the honor. Photograph by Sherry Griffin/R & Company
Grossman taught furniture design at UCLA from 1957 to 1963, but her work began to taper off in the early ’60s; by the end of the decade she had all but vanished from architecture and design. Around that time she moved south to the small beach community of Encinitas and devoted herself to painting. After Grossman’s death in 1999, Evan Snyderman and Lily Kane of the New York gallery R & Company were able to track down and preserve her estate. But her abrupt withdrawal from the design world remains a mystery to them. As Snyderman relates in his introduction to the catalog Greta Magnusson Grossman: Furniture and Lighting, even Grossman’s good friends in Encinitas (some of whom had known her for almost 30 years) had no idea of her previous career, much less her significance as one of Los Angeles’s influential modernist designers.