You might think that a stylish and seriously talented female designer, who had been the toast of Los Angeles for 20 years, would have secured a place in history. But Greta Grossman – who arrived in LA from her native Sweden in 1940 – is sadly absent from the story of Mid-Century Modern design. This is in spite of the fact that she built a string of seminal houses in the Californian city and for two decades was numbered among its most celebrated designers.
Things may be about to change. Next week at the Stockholm Furniture Fair, the Danish company Gubi is relaunching two of Grossman's lighting designs – the Cobra and the Grasshopper – then taking them on to the mother of all international design showcases, the Milan Furniture Fair in April. "It's a mystery that Greta Grossman has been so forgotten," says Jacob Gubi, who with his brother Sebastian now runs the furniture company set up by their father in 1967. "Her work was so progressive. It takes the standards of Scandinavian Modern but adds some real twists."
The lights are a case in point. The Cobra (designed in 1948) has a wide curving shade, based on a cobra's hooded head; the Grasshopper (1950) has conical shades and pencil-thin legs which look like they could strike out across the floor at any moment. Both are typical of their time, but with a sense of animation and movement that sets them apart.
Grossman's story starts in Helsingborg, where, as Greta Magnusson, she took the unusual step of embarking upon a woodworking apprenticeship before going on to the renowned Stockholm art school, the Konstfack, to study textiles, furniture and ceramics. In 1933, aged just 27, she received an award for furniture design from the Swedish Society of Craft and Design – the first woman to do so – and set up her own store and studio in the Swedish capital.
It seems that Grossman didn't rely just on her design talent. She made good use of her youth, charm and looks, and she rounded up a celebrity clientele, including the actress Ingrid Bergman. In 1937, she designed a crib in honour of the birth of Princess Birgitta, granddaughter of the Crown Prince Gustav, ensuring more headlines by presenting it to the public in an exhibition at the National Museum. By now she was also married to the British bandleader Billy Grossman and the pair seem to have been essential guests on the chic social circuit, summering in Bastad (the Swedish Biarritz) and throwing spectacular parties of their own: one such in celebration of the opening of her hugely successful one-woman show at Stockholm's Galerie Moderne in 1938, where exhibits included a lemon-yellow crescent-shaped sofa and a swing seat in a checked textile appliquéd with red hearts.
Swedish design, however, was as big a hit in the United States as it was at home. In 1940, after Denmark and Norway had been occupied by the German army, the Grossmans left for California in July. She immediately set up shop on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, and acquired Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine and Gracie Allen as loyal customers. It would be unfair, though, to say that Grossman's prodigious networking abilities outshone her excellence as a designer. After only three months in LA, her elegant work was included in a group show with designers as credible as California's most famous modernist, the Austrian émigré Richard Neutra.
"Her style is unique," Jacob Gubi says. "Not kitsch, but perhaps more tricksy than her peers'." And it's true, where fellow Mid-Century Modernists were using a rigorous and restricted palette of materials, Grossman liked nothing better than to combine a lovely walnut desktop with one wooden leg and two incredibly spindly ones in black metal, finishing it off with a shiny black-laminate surface. Her lamps often look like mechanical flowers; her interiors are filled with intricately patterned textiles and colour. Nonetheless, her work sits happily alongside other fêted designers of the time, including Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson (famous for his sunburst clocks).
Grossman's houses in the Hollywood hills and canyons are trailblazers of open-plan, healthy, light-filled modern living: exercises in clever split-level planning on irregular sites that step up the hillsides; the apotheosis of fluidity between inside and outside space. She didn't believe in hallways ("too dark") or skimpy kitchens ("too impractical") and did believe in bedrooms that were sufficiently isolated not to absorb the smells or the tensions of any other activities being carried out in the house. Plant-filled containers were often used as room dividers. More eclectic than some of her peers, she would mix old furniture with new – the Grossmans' own home always featured an early-20th- century desk and a 19th-century chest of drawers.
And then she simply disappeared from the design scene. In 1960, Billy became ill and the pair moved to San Diego, where Grossman took up painting. Billy died in 1979, and Greta lived another 20 years in obscurity, not even mentioning to her close neighbours that she had once been a star of the Los Angeles artistic scene.
Gubi's revival of her reputation is not before time, but she is not the first designer the company has embraced. Last year, it relaunched the Pedrera light, originally designed by the Catalan architect Barba Corsini in 1955, and inspired by the way light is used in the architecture of Antoni Gaudí (creator of Barcelona's Sagrada Familia church).
Gubi also owns the classic British lighting company Bestlite, producing the metal-shaded task lights designed by Robert Dudley Best in 1930. The Bestlite was once most famous for having pride of place on Winston Churchill's desk and is now favoured by chic restaurants and offices everywhere. Perhaps the same fate awaits Greta Grossman's Cobra and Grasshopper, creations of one of Sweden's (and Los Angeles's) most intriguing 20th-century designers.The Grasshopper and Cobra (from £345) will be available from www.geoffreyharris.com from Spring 2011. www.gubi.dk
Reclaiming the throne
Also launching at the Stockholm Furniture Fair, is a re-edition of Verner Panton's 1-2-3 De-Lux chair by Verpan. Originally created in 1973, design enthusiasts will recognise its resemblance to the very famous cantilevered S chair by Panton. But this one has a steel frame and can be upholstered, most extravagantly, in buttoned leather. The dining chair starts at £595. The Lounge chair is £800 (in leather £2,750).www.verpan.dk
Originally designed in 1952 for quintessentially modern British design company Hille by quintessentially modern British designer Robin Day, Habitat relaunched the 675 chair in September last year. With a bent walnut plywood back, a metal frame and a padded leather seat, it's a sleek piece of retro for your dining room. Day, probably Britain's most successful and best-loved 20th-century furniture designer, died in November 2010 aged 95.www.habitat.co.uk
In 1973, the Israeli-born, London-based furniture retailer Zeev Aram was given the world licence by designer Eileen Gray to reproduce and distribute her designs. She was 96. Her chromed tubular steel furniture, including the adjustable, circular E1027 side table designed for her own seaside home in 1925, and the Bibendum chair, with its two chunky padded rolls for a back, are design classics. www.aram.co.uk