A flair for the whimsical

Though little known to most of the public, Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman are revered in design circles for ceramics, tile mosaics, woodcarvings and textiles that had the kind of cheap-chic ethos so popular today.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

As children of the Great Depression, Jerome and Evelyn Ackerman had modest dreams: They wanted to own their home and decorate it with beautiful things. In 1952, the couple left Detroit to start a mom-and-pop arts studio in Culver City, and in the decades that followed they produced hundreds of handmade ceramics, tile mosaics, woodcarvings and rugs -- affordable home furnishings that, starting Sunday, will be elevated to museum pieces.

The Mingei International Museum in San Diego’s Balboa Park is opening the first major retrospective for Jerome, now 89, and Evelyn, 84. “Masters of Mid-Century California Modernism — Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman” offers more than 200 pieces from a portfolio distinguished by stylishly cheerful motifs, cute but never cloying expressions of postwar optimism. To this day, the work continues to resonate among designers and collectors such as Jonathan Adler. “I first stumbled upon an Evelyn Ackerman tapestry 12 years ago when I was digging through a thrift store in Seattle, and an addiction was born,” Adler says. “Their textiles are like Charles and Ray Eames’ designs and Bonnie Cashin’s fashions -- optimistic, gorgeous, influenced by a sense of freedom that can only be found in California.”

Jerome first experienced the liberating atmosphere of Los Angeles while decompressing from his Air Force service after World War II. “I was a beach bum and I liked it,” he says.

He returned to Detroit and met and married Evelyn. As cash-strapped art students who made their own furniture and draperies, they found inspiration in the work of the Santa Monica-based Eameses. On a 1949 vacation in Southern California, the couple met acclaimed ceramists Beatrice Wood and Otto and Gertrud Natzler.

“We came away from it saying there were interesting things happening in Los Angeles design,” Jerome says. “We thought, ‘Why can’t we do that, or at least try?’”

They moved west and set up the ceramic studio Jenev, an abbreviation of their first names. To make ends meet, she worked for $1 an hour answering fan mail for comedian Red Skelton, and they both designed and decorated novelty kitchen items for Cal Pacific Imports. “A lot of measuring spoon sets and spice racks,” Jerome recalls, laughing.

It took a year for Jerome to develop the forms, molds and glazes for his pottery, which sold for $4 to $20 at modernist stores such as Jules Seltzer. The sleek ceramics caught the eye of East Coast furniture designer Paul McCobb, who sold Jenev pieces in his showrooms.

By 1956, Jenev was successful enough that the Ackermans could buy an $18,000 three-bedroom tract house in Culver City, where they still live. There, Evelyn began to blossom as an artist. Jerome remembers leaving the couple’s showroom and coming home to stacks of drawings.

“She’d say, ‘These are for wood, those are for weavings, and the others are for mosaics,’ ” he says. “It astonished me that this fine artist who never did anything commercial could come up with these things.”

By the end of the 1950s, working under the name Era Industries, Evelyn had created designs for wooden bas-relief plaques, aluminum wall sculptures and decorative textiles. With her at the drawing board and Jerome taking charge of production and marketing, the Ackermans exemplified the Bauhaus principle of bringing good design to the masses. Production was limited, but prices were affordable. Evelyn was adept at what her husband calls “warm and whimsical” designs featuring folk art-inspired flora, fauna, children and mythical figures.

“They embodied the can-do spirit of California,” says Bill Stern, founder of the Museum of California Design. The modern work “brought affordable midcentury design into homes across the country.”

Adds textiles expert Dale Gluckman, who mounted the Mingei show: “Their designs were in the right place at the right time for the booming housing market.”

The couple’s colorful, textured mosaics and textiles relieved the starkness and the glare of light-filled modernist homes, says Gluckman’s co-curator, Jo Lauria.

“I was amazed at how fluidly they moved from the language of geometric and minimal abstraction -- a modernist aesthetic -- to a vernacular vocabulary that bordered on folk art,” she says. Stern goes so far as to say that Evelyn’s tile table tops, panels and architectural friezes “helped reinvigorate the art of the mosaic, a medium that dates back at least to Roman times but which hadn’t yet caught up to the 20th century.” Mosaics remain the most sought-after Ackerman works at Los Angeles Modern Auctions, says founder Peter Loughrey, who in June sold a 1950s panel for $3,120, doubling the low end of its pre-auction estimate.

Although their work frequently landed on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Home magazine and they exhibited in the California Design shows that the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon) ran from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, the Ackermans never achieved the stature of many contemporaries, something that Loughrey attributes to their prolific output. “You just don’t see the same designs over and over again,” he says, “which makes it harder to be iconic.”

Indeed, for examples of that kind of iconic modernism, one need only look to the Ackermans’ home, furnished with a pair of Eames plywood chairs, a lounge chair and sewing table by Hans Wegner and an Alvar Aalto stool. But true to form, the place is also home to antique toys, Mexican handicrafts, African masks and stacks of art books.

“I have one rule for decorating,” Evelyn says. “Do whatever pleases you.”

Since completing her last major project -- a 1960s series of Bible story cloisonné enamels now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. -- she has followed her own advice. Evelyn has filled her home with antique dolls and dollhouses and written five authoritative books on dolls, including two volumes that feature her own doll costume patterns.

Though the couple closed the Era Industries showroom on Beverly Boulevard more than 20 years ago, Jerome still fields calls from collectors and consults with architects looking for interesting products. He has returned to the potter’s wheel, creating ceramics and limited reissues of his Jenev designs that are sold at the Del Mano and Freehand galleries in L.A.

“I’ve been much busier since we retired,” he jokes.

Combing their archives for the Mingei show has given the couple, married 60 years, an opportunity to re-examine their legacy.

“It reaffirms the faith that you had in what you were doing,” Jerome says, adding that it’s gratifying to see their work strike a chord with longtime fans as well as with new generations.

“The work was meant to be appealing, but it was never frivolous,” Evelyn says. “One of our goals was to be affordable. Not having a lot of money was the position we were in most of our young life, so it is what we strove to do for others.”