Design Icon: Greta Grossman

Greta Grossman, for a while relegated to the footnotes of design history, is finally getting the deserved recognition as one of the pioneers of mid-century modernism in both Sweden and California.

Today mostly remembered for her elegant and playful Grasshopper Lamp, in the 1950s and '60s, Greta Grossman was a highly sought-after architect, interior and industrial designer who worked across two continents. 

Growing up in Sweden in 1920s, Grossman, as a precocious teen, defied expectations by taking up woodworking, a predominantly male profession at the time. She followed this venture by becoming one of the first women to graduate from the Stockholm School of Industrial Design. Greatly influenced by functionalism, Grossman travelled across Europe, visiting the pioneering Weissenhof settlement and joining the conversations at the Motta restaurant in Milan, a primary meeting place for Milan’s art and design world, where, among others, she befriended the famed designer Gio Ponti.

Back in Sweden, Grossman rose to prominence in Stockholm’s design scene after opening Studio, a store and a workshop, which immediately became the most popular gathering place for young Swedish designers. Grossman herself became the poster-girl for modernism in Sweden, until in 1940, under the dark cloud of the Second World War, Greta and her husband, jazz player Billy Grossman, emigrated to the United States. Once settled in Los Angeles, Grossman opened a store in Rodeo Drive. Playing up her Swedish heritage, her business cards read simply Greta Magnusson Grossman: Swedish designer, in order to attract American customers who were awed by Swedish design after the highly-successful exhibition of Swedish Modern at the New York World’s Fair.

Grossman’s personal brand of modernism was never a cold, monochrome one. But once in LA, it fully blossomed by combining a Swedish fondness for color and texture with the opportunities allowed by bright and open spaces of Southern California. With a humanist sensibility, she designed large, airy living rooms which were meant to serve as spaces for dining, entertaining and working, while keeping the bedroom a private haven, removed from the bustle of activity in the rest of the house. Always designing for comfort and practicality, she placed a great emphasis on roomy, multi-functional kitchens, saying: “no architect should be allowed to design a kitchen without running a household for a couple of months! Please, keep us from the ‘rationalized’ kitchens with all their expensive and fancy appliances but without decent cupboards for this and that.”

Grossman’s furniture, too, shows a strong interest in merging functionality and comfort. However, this did little to curb her desire for experimentation, as she enjoyed combining wood with new materials, such as metal and plastic, and playing with bold colors. The most iconic products Grossman designed after moving to LA, were the Grasshopper floor lamp and the Cobra lamps. The Grasshopper, introduced in 1947, is made up of an aluminum conical shade resting on a tubular steel tripod stand and remains her most popular design, while the Cobra lamp won the 1950 Good Design award and was consequently showcased at the MoMA. The forms of Grossman’s furniture seem both organic in their curves (and nature-derived names), but also highly modern in their simplicity and functionality.

Grossman remained a design star in California for the rest of her life, her pieces selling to Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo and Frank Sinatra, while today she is deservedly renowned internationally for her significant role in defining the modernist esthetic.

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