Modern Lamps in Midcentury America

Zahara Schatz, manufactured by Heifetz Manufacturing Company, Table Lamp, 1951. Aluminum, enameled brass. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift from the George R. Kravis II Collection. Photo courtesy of Wright.

Zahara Schatz and Heifetz Manufacturing Company, Table Lamp, 1951. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift from the George R. Kravis II Collection. Photo courtesy of Wright.

In 1950, the Museum of Modern Art and New York-based Heifetz Manufacturing Company announced a design competition for floor and table lamps, offering cash prizes and the tantalizing promise that Heifetz would put at least three-quarters of the winning designs into production. [1] Ultimately, eight table lamps and two floor lamps were chosen for manufacture from over 600 entries. [2] These lamps were exhibited at MoMA from March 27–June 3, 1951 (alongside drawings, diagrams, photographs of the designs), published in Arts & Architecture magazine, and offered for sale across the United States at numerous stores, including Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. in Chicago and Macy’s in New York and San Francisco. [3] Now, two of these lamps are on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum as part of Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America (Sept 28, 2018-Jan 6, 2019).

 

Among the jurors was renowned modernist architect Marcel Breuer, who had sparked a debate about modern lighting design the previous year that resulted in the competition. In 1949, Breuer designed an exhibition house for the Museum of Modern Art. Called The House in the Museum Garden, it was intended to model a modern and moderately-priced single-family home. Among the house’s many noteworthy features—such as its V-shaped “butterfly” roof and prominent children’s playroom—was the exclusive use of built-in lighting. Claiming that he had not been able to locate a single free-standing lamp on the market that met his criteria for good modern design, Breuer turned to wall-mounted spotlights and fluorescent “horizontal, wall-strip, indirect units.”[4] In visitor surveys, 77% approved of this “unconventional lighting,” which was supplied by New York’s Gotham Lighting Corporation and the Kurt Versen Company of Englewood, New Jersey. [5]

Installation view of the exhibition "The House in the Museum Garden,"April 12, 1949–October 30, 1949. Photographic Archive, Exhibition Albums, 405.9. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN405.15. Photograph by Ezra Stoller

Installation view of the exhibition The House in the Museum Garden, April 12, 1949–October 30, 1949. Photographic Archive, Exhibition Albums, 405.9. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN405.15. Photo by Ezra Stoller.

Though a majority of visitors to the exhibition approved of Breuer’s lamp-free approach, this was bad news for lamp manufacturers such as Heifetz, and explains their interest in sponsoring the subsequent competition. In determining winners, the jury clearly selected for certain qualities; all of the manufactured designs use modern metals such as aluminum, incorporate bold geometric forms, and rest on delicate rod bases. Arts & Architecture noted (following MoMA’s press release) that Heifetz worked collaboratively with the designers, adjusting scale, material, color to prepare the entries for manufacture—a company clearly had a vision for what modern lamp design from the outset. [6]

Spread from Arts and Architecture, May 1951.

Spread from Arts & Architecture, May 1951.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Evil Genius of a King, 1914-15. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art 112.1936. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Evil Genius of a King, 1914-15. Museum of Modern Art 112.1936. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ SIAE, Rome.

Interestingly, three paintings from MoMA’s collection were exhibited alongside the lamps, including Giorgio de Chirico’s, The Evil Genius of a King (1914-15), a surrealist work depicting geometric volumes in an inexplicably-angled, architecturally-defined space. [7] Perhaps the curators thought that the various painted forms would resonate with the lamps’ bold, even alien geometry.

MoMA characterized the winning designs as showing “a trend towards lightness of appearance, unusual flexibility in the control of light, and multiplicity of use.” [8] Notably, all of the winning designs were adjustable in some way, “either in height, degree and strength of light or position in the room.” [9] This quality of adaptability recalls the modernist embrace of modularity for architecture and furniture design—both offer a means for personal customization within a larger framework of standardization. In the case of Zahara Schatz’s design (pictured above), both the narrow, upward-facing cone (containing the lightbulb) and the wider, reflective shade above it were adjustable. By manipulating the angle between these two elements, a variety of lighting effects could be achieved. This was communicated in the exhibition by a set of photographs, visible on the right edge of this installation photo:

Unidentified visitors at the exhibition, "New Lamps," March 27, 1951–June 3, 1951. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN473.16

Unidentified visitors at the exhibition New Lamps, March 27, 1951–June 3, 1951. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN473.16.

Zahara Schatz, publicity photograph released in connection with the exhibition, "New Lamps," March 27, 1951–June 3, 1951. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN473.4.

Zahara Schatz, publicity photograph released in connection with the exhibition, New Lamps, March 27, 1951–June 3, 1951. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN473.4.

 

Zahara Schatz (1916–1999) was the daughter of prominent Israeli artist Boris Schatz, who founded the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem in 1906. [10] After studying art in Paris, she came to the United States in 1937, where she became recognized as an artist and designer, particularly regarded for her experimental use of Plexiglas for paintings, sculptures, jewelry, and other functional objects. [11] Her work was exhibited frequently in the late 1940s and early 1950s in New York and elsewhere in the United States, and both her abstract sculpture and decorative objects received positive reviews. [12]

 

Lamp by Zahara Schatz, published in the New York Times, 1951.

Her participation in the MoMA/Heifetz competition was not her first, nor last, experience in lamp design. In 1947, a lamp by Schatz that featured wires sculpturally arranged within a plastic base was recognized by the American Institute of decorators, and in 1951 her design featuring a laminated plastic shade embedded with copper wire and gold fibers on a metal rod base was available at Modernage Furniture Corporation’s New York outlets. [13] These pieces, like her design for Heifetz, depart from traditional lighting to consider new materials, abstraction, and innovation strategies for light diffusion. Schatz retuned to Israel in 1951, where she founded the Ya’ad design firm with her mother and brother and continued a vibrant career in art and design. [14]

 

Lester Geis, publicity photograph released in connection with the exhibition New Lamps, March 27, 1951–June 3, 1951. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. IN473.6

 

Much less is known about Lester Geis, who also received an honorable mention for his table lamp design. In a press release, MoMA notes that on the whole the winning designers were young and relatively unknown, and that many were GI’s; it’s possible that Geis was among this group. Patents filed between 1945 and 1949 suggest that the New York-based Geis was working for various manufacturers around this time, designing items such as a projector for the American Optical Company of Southbridge, Massachusetts, but more research is needed to illuminate his history. [15]

 

Lester Geis and Heifetz Manufacturing Company, Table lamp (model T-5-), 1951. Collection of George R. Kravis II. Photo courtesy of Wright.

 

See Schatz and Geis’s winning lamp designs, alongside over 200 other works of midcentury design, in the exhibition Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America, which explores how many designers working in the United States after World War II achieved serious design innovations by fundamentally incorporating playfulness and whimsy into their work. On view in the Museum’s Baker/Rowland Galleries now through January 6, 2019.

 

 

[1] “Prizes Total $2,600 for Lamp Design,” New York Times, May 9, 1950.

[2] “Prize-Winning Lamps, On Exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Go On Sale Here,” press release, Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 12, 1951, 1.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4]“House in Museum Garden by Marcel Breuer to Open April 14,” press release, Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 8, 1949, 2.

[5] “Modern Architecture Favored in Poll: Survey of Visitors to House in Museum Garden Reveals Majority Like New Designs,” press release, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 11, 1949, 1; “The House in the Museum Garden: Marcel Breuer, Architect,” master checklist, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1949, unpaginated.

[6] “Results: Lamp Competition,” Arts & Architecture 68, no. 5 (1951): 28.

[7]“New Lamps,” master checklist, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1951.

[8] “Prize-Winning Lamps,” 1.

[9] “10 Winners Shown in Lamp Contest,” New York Times, March 28, 1951.

[10] Dana Gilerman, “Prof. Schatz’s Wayward Children,” Haretz.com. Jan 5, 2006. Accessed December 5, 2018. Available online: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/1.4888779

[11] Margaret Anderson, “An Artist Works in Plastic,” Craft Horizons 12, no. 4 (1952): 8-12.

[12] “Prints, Plastics,” New York Times, February 2, 1947; Aline B. Louchheim, “Of ‘Material and Immaterial,’” New York Times, February 20, 1949; “Artists Display Work in Plastics,” New York Times, May 4, 1949; “Exhibit to Depict ‘Deception in Gold,’” New York Times, February 14, 1950; Stuart Preston, “At Two Modern Museums,” New York Times, August 6, 1950, “In Brief: Exhibitions,” New York Times, December 16, 1951; “Decorative Mobiles Offered for Homes,” New York Times, June 12, 1952.

[13] “Honors for Design,” New York Times, February 15, 1948; Betty Pepis, “For the Home: Modern Lamps Use Fresh Materials, New York Times, February 14, 1951.

[14] Gilerman, “Prof. Schatz’s Wayward Children.”

[15] Lester Geis and Charles L. Metzler, assignors to American Optical Company, Southbridge, MA, “Design for a Projector,” Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office v. 581 (December 1945): 154; Lester Geis and Charles L. Metz, assignors to American Optical Company, “Tiltable Cabinet with Holding Mechanism,” Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office v. 621 (April 1949): 1225; Lester Geis and Robert E. Pope, assignors to Radio Corporation of America, “Article Holding Album,” Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office v. 623 (June 1949): 567.

 

 

 

 

 

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