At a Van Nuys auction house earlier this month, bidding on a seemingly simple 1940s aluminum and brass floor lamp by Greta Grossman rose to $10,000, then with the crowd buzzing, climbed past $15,000. Then $20,000. And $25,000. By the time the gavel fell and the applause in the room had died down, an unidentified bidder had bought the lamp for $37,500 -- a record for Grossman and a sign of how this pioneering female designer, once a footnote in Midcentury Modern history, is on her way to becoming a household name.
Greta Magnusson Grossman (1906-99) was a prize-winning decorator and furniture designer throughout the 1930s in Stockholm, but she left her native Swedenin 1940. Settling in Los Angeles, she opened a Rodeo Drive studio, designed for the landmark Barker Bros. store, built modernist homes and crafted innovative furniture and lighting. Yet by the late 1960s, Grossman had fallen into obscurity -- as enigmatic as her fellow compatriot and onetime client Greta Garbo.
"She was a major player in the 1940s and '50s, a media darling pictured alongside Charles Eames and Isamu Noguchi, and poof, she disappears," said Evan Snyderman, the furniture dealer and co-owner of R 20th Century in New York, the gallery that acquired Grossman's archives and sells vintage Grossman pieces. "She walked away from the world of design, built a home in San Diego and started painting landscapes."
Grossman's design legacy, however, is building thanks partly to an exhibition that premiered in 2010 at the Arkitekturmuseet, the Swedish Museum of Architecture in Stockholm. "Greta Magnusson Grossman: A Car and Some Shorts," which take its subtitle from Grossman's quip to a newspaper about what she needed most upon her arrival in California, opens Sunday for a four-month run at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.
The exhibition and accompanying book represent the first career retrospective for Grossman and features rare architectural drawings, interior design renderings and home furnishings.
"In Sweden, she was almost forgotten," said curator Karin Åberg Waern, who created the show with Snyderman. "It was a great discovery to find a woman designer who succeeded in two countries."
The Times first surveyed Grossman's work five years ago, but only recently has the popularity among collectors and curators begun to spread to a broader audience. The Danish manufacturer Gubi has begun to reproduce Grossman’s iconic lights, including the three-legged Grasshopper floor lamp, which originally sold for $19 in 1949. Vintage versions can fetch up to $10,000 at auction now, but new Grossman devotees can find the newly manufactured Grasshoppers sold for $875 at Design Within Reach.
"Living in a Modern Way," the California design show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year, brought Grossman's work "back into focus in a major way," said Los Angeles Modern Auctions owner Peter Loughrey, who sold the record-breaking Grossman floor lamp at his Van Nuys warehouse this month for more than four times its pre-auction estimate.
With the new exhibition in Pasadena, he said, "Interest is reaching a fever pitch."
"The gratifying thing is that it's not a local market getting carried away. We've been selling her designs to people in New York, Europe and Asia."
Los Angeles interior designer Jamie Bush has used Grossman lamps alongside furniture from the 1940s and '50s but noted they would work equally well in lofts and other industrial-accented spaces. "The paint finishes she used were almost automotive, and that feels very American to me," he said.
The broad appeal of Grossman's work has its roots in Stockholm, where in the 1930s she had exposure to the Bauhaus movement and International Style architects such as
Grossman's showrooms displayed her work alongside Scandinavian designs, helping to open the floodgates for the Danish Modern craze of the 1950s. Her lighting designs were simplistic yet highly technical, incorporating flexible gooseneck stems and ball-pivot mechanisms on shades -- earning her comparisons to iconic French designers Serge Mouille and Mathieu Matégot.
Grossman, who was married to a jazz musician called the Benny Goodman of Sweden, was able to fuse her Scandinavian sensibility with new Golden State materials and technologies.
"California gave her the freedom and skilled craftspeople to design and live in a modern way," Snyderman said, adding that Grossman was a sixth-generation woodworker who apprenticed as a carpenter and studied ceramics, textiles and other crafts.
"As a designer, she was always shaking things up and was a major force in defining California modernism," he said. Among her signatures: chair seats and backrests that seem to float above sculptural bases, and asymmetrical tables that balance on iron legs with wooden ball feet.
"The old idea that women are not good at mechanical work is stuff and nonsense," Grossman once said. "The only advantage a man has in furniture designing is his greater physical strength."
Grossman's work, Waern said, nonetheless exhibits a combination of sensuality and wit.
"She liked soft shapes, the use of strong colors and a twist to the design," the curator said. "In her best moments, it is really funny, like the fantastic, three-panel room divider she made for Glenn of California with wooden balls suspended on strings like an atom model, which is completely useless as an actual screen."
One of only two known examples of that screen can be seen in the Pasadena show; the other is in the permanent collection of LACMA. It's part of the designer's greatest accomplishment, said Gerard O'Brien, owner of Reform Gallery in Los Angeles, which has sold Grossman's work for the past 10 years. "Although she came from the European tradition of Modernism, Greta Grossman thought about whole room environments and was an early proponent of creating collections of furniture that work with one another."
Aside from custom kidney-shaped sofas she designed for Brown Saltman and Barker Bros., O'Brien said, some of Grossman's most coveted works are pieces from her 1952 collection for Glenn of California. It was called the 62 Series because company owner Bob Baron deemed it 10 years ahead of its time. Grossman freely mixed materials, putting scorch-proof Formica tops -- new at the time -- on walnut tables, dressers and desks.
"The pieces were made to order," Snyderman said. "And they were not produced in great quantities, which is why they continue to appreciate in value."
So much so that the Danish firm Gubi confirmed this week that it will be adding a desk and dresser from the 62 Series to its line of reproductions. (When U.S. distribution is confirmed, L.A. at Home will let you know where those pieces can be bought.)
"That's not going to be the end of it," O'Brien said, adding that Grossman's moment isn't limited to now. "I think it's been developing for a while and is going to last," he said. "Even if you've never heard of her, when you see one of her tables with black iron legs, you think, 'That's cool. What is that?' It's good, timeless design."