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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Designing Home at the CJM: Did Jews Design Mrs. Cleaver's Kitchen?

Posted By on Wed, Apr 23, 2014 at 3:48 PM


"I'm in the kitchen, dear," said Mrs. Cleaver as she tidied up her sparkling Formica counter.

If Jews designed her spick-and-span 1950s kitchen -- it's quite possible, according to the new Designing Home exhibit on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. June Cleaver's showplace of a living room was also likely designed by Jews.

Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism will be on display at CJM through October 6. Curated by architect and architectural historian Donald Albrecht, the exhibition pays tribute to the sleek, then ultra-modern designs that were popular in middle class American homes from the 1930s-1960s. Immortalized on classic sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, Bachelor Father and Father Knows Best, these architectural designs and home furnishings capture a time and place in American history that invokes the 1940s and 1950s "comfortable" all American family.

Decades later, mid-century modernism saw renewed popularity among well to do types who wanted to bask in the glory of "retro chic." Unknown to many, a large portion of these designs were the work of Jews, some who came from the ghettos of New York's Lower East Side, others from the Shtelts (villages) of Eastern Europe.

"There's a nice connection in the exhibit to the Bay Area creative community," said Lori Starr, Executive Director of the CJM. "The exhibit's mission is to make the diversity and complexity of Jewish live relevant for the 21st Century."

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The Bay Area indeed reaped the benefits of the era's Jewish designers, as evidenced by the futuristic looking Schiff House, designed by Richard Neutra (1892-1970) in 1935 for Marina residents Dr. and Mrs. William Schiff. The Schiffs had been forced to flee Nazi Germany for being Jewish, though fortunately they found safety and sanctuary in San Francisco.

The Hollywood film industry of the 1950s was another beneficiary of mid-century modernism. Saul Bass (1920-1996) was well known for designing movie posters and title sequences for many classic films. His work was seen in movies whose decor personified the era, like Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), as well as the daring heroin addiction drama The Man With The Golden Arm (1955). Bass always sought to make his work blend with the art direction of whatever film he was working on -- some of his more memorable posters designs are included in the CJM exhibit. The opening title sequences from many of the films Bass worked on are projected onto a giant screen at the exhibit.

Those who visit Designing Home will be able to get up close and personal (no touching, please) with living and dining room sets, office furnishings, kitchenware, and even Judaica such as Menorahs and Sabbath wine goblets, all carefully displayed to make you feel secure in the knowledge that Mom is in the next room, vacuuming the carpet in her pearls and heels.

Check out the exhibit at The Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission).

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF

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