How Jewish Design Influenced America

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The influence of Jewish designers on the American aesthetic in the mid-twentieth century is the subject of a new exhibition at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum, The Atlantic reports.

"Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism" tells the story of how Hitler's war on degenerate modernism led to America's gain, with the influx of leading modernist designers, such as George Nelson, Alvin Lustig, Anni Albers, Saul Bass, Paul Rand, Richard Neutra and Leo Lionni.

Between them, the Jewish immigrant and second-generation designers helped introduce and shape the "epoch-defining, less-is-more, Bauhaus-inspired aesthetic" that was prevalent in many American homes and businesses during the post-World War II period.

Spanning a wide range of disciplines – from architecture to graphic, product, and industrial design – the Jewish designers were influential in creating a distinctly American look that continues until today.

The magazine quotes the exhibition's curator, Donald Albrecht, as saying that the period dealt with in the exhibition marked a turning point from the previous exclusion of Jews from the fields of architecture and design. I don't know if modernism triggered the change, [but it caused] a lessening of anti-Semitism after World War II, he said.

Modernism itself was controversial, despite its growing acceptance among middle- and upper-class Americans and corporations. Nazis in America denounced it as Bolshevik and its practitioners were often condemned as left-wingers.

Many Jews were here to stay, Albrecht explains, so they worked to make a good home in the U.S. and, for some, that good home meant good modern design, especially in new suburbs.

Henry Dreyfuss' Princess Phone, 1959. Credit: Screenshot
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Henry Dreyfuss, Princess Phone, 1959. Credit: Johnna Arnold / CJM
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Ernest Sohn, made by Hall China Company for Ernest Sohn Creations, 'Esquire' coffee pot set and casserole dishes, 1963. Credit: Courtesy Earl Marin / CJM
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George Nelson & Associates, Irving Harper, Vitra, Marshmallow Sofa, 1956.Credit: The Contemporary Jewish Museum
Alvin Lustig, Book jacket for Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, 1945. Photo by The Contemporary Jewish Museum
Ruth Adler Schnee, Cuneiforms, 1947–48. Photo by The Contemporary Jewish Museum

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