Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman did it “their way,” designing for people like themselves, who were on a budget yet wanted to live with beautiful, well-made things.
One day in 1949, Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman, young newlywed art students, went to the Detroit Institute of Arts to see “For Modern Living,” an exhibition organized by the architect Alexander Girard that surveyed the new wave of postwar design. What they saw dazzled them. “It opened our eyes,” Jerome, now 89, remembers. “It was something. There was Eames furniture, V’Soske carpets, Kurt Versen lighting. We walked through all that and just said, wow.” Here, for their generation, was a fresh and exciting alternative to the “mundane, what-your-mother-had, doilies-on-a-table” kind of traditional home decor. “We didn’t know we had missed it, because it hadn’t been there. But when it became available, we realized—hey, there’s something a step above, or different, that answers something here,” Jerome says, touching his heart.
“For Modern Living” prompted the Ackermans to drive to the Herman Miller showroom in Grand Rapids and buy, for their first apartment, a George Nelson bench, two Alvar Aalto stools, and a lounge chair and dining table by the husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames. More important, the show gave them a vision for their future.
“Evvy and I looked at each other,” recalls Jerome, “and very prophetically said, ‘If the Eameses can do it, maybe we can do it. Or at least, we can try.’”
Sixty years later, the Ackermans are themselves the subjects of a wide-ranging and deeply inspiring exhibition, “Masters of Mid-Century California Modernism,” on view through January 2010 at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. Curated by Jo Lauria and Dale Carolyn Gluckman, this first retrospective celebrates the couple’s career as designers of home furnishings and their role in the development of California Modern style. “We realized how ‘under the radar’ their work has been, how underrecognized they are by all except specialists in the craft/design field,” the curators explain. “We wanted to put them in the spotlight, and make their work visible to a wider population of art and design enthusiasts who would appreciate them and come to truly understand their contribution to the field.”
There is a warmth and authenticity to Ackerman ceramics, tapestries, mosaics and wood carvings, perhaps because they designed for people like themselves, who were on a budget yet wanted to live with beautiful, well-made things. They believed in the Bauhaus philosophy of combining fine art, craft and industry to produce quality goods, and strove to make, as Jerome says, “things we could be proud of in terms of our design and art backgrounds, but that were viable commercially, that people could afford and get pleasure from putting on their walls or their tables.”
At the heart of their collaboration is a love story. Both Jerome Ackerman and Evelyn Lipton grew up artistically inclined in hardworking, middle-class families in Depression-era Detroit. They attended all the same schools, but since Evelyn was four years younger, didn’t meet until 1948, when Jerome, home from Air Corps service in Germany, walked into an interior design store and saw “an extremely lovely young lady sitting and folding fabrics.” He introduced himself and offered her a candy bar. “Pretty sophisticated opening, wouldn’t you say?” he jokes. “As fate would have it, Evelyn happened to like Milky Ways.”
They quickly went from smitten to serious. “I felt I’d met someone who was solid,” Jerome says. Evelyn was sensitive and scholarly, an introvert who loved to immerse herself in drawing, painting and the study of art history. “I guess I’m a person who, at least at that time, really internalized everything,” she says today. “Jerry was so different from me. He was outgoing, social, everything I could never be. I just knew he was right for me.” They married within the year, and Evelyn completed her graduate studies in fine arts at Wayne State University. Jerome resumed his own art studies there, which had been interrupted by the war, then earned his m.f.a. in the prestigious ceramics program at Alfred University in New York.
In 1952 they moved to California, lured, like so many, by the sunny climate, sense of freedom and promise of opportunity. “There were people here doing things [in design and craft] that we liked,” Jerome explains. “We knew something was going on that was different. What we saw here were new expressions.”
Settling in Los Angeles, they opened their first studio, Jenev (a combination of their names), where Jerome made sleek, slip-cast ceramics. In 1956 Jenev became era Industries, and their line grew to include a wide variety of limited-production decorative accessories, designed by Evelyn and made by skilled craftsmen in Mexico and other countries—mosaic plaques and tables, woven and hooked tapestries and rugs, carved wood panels, door pulls and other hardware. Their imagery ranged from simple yet sophisticated abstract designs to charming, stylized birds, monkeys, kings and queens, zodiac symbols and other figures. That Evelyn, with her fine-arts training and sensibilities, was able to brilliantly apply her talents to commercial design “surprised her and surprised me,“ says Jerome. “What she had was unique.” As her creativity bloomed, so did era’s product line. Their cross-disciplinary approach was unusual for designer-craftsmen, but “Evvy and I always had a great curiosity about materials,” Jerome says. “We wanted to stretch. We enjoyed the exploration.”
Their career flourished with the postwar housing boom in the Golden State, led by developers such as Joseph Eichler, who designed vast communities in the modernist style. (Shortly after they came west, the Ackermans met Eichler and he assured them, “I’ll be building enough homes that if you sell a pot to everybody who buys one, you’ll be okay.”) Ackerman furnishings lent warmth, texture and a very California palette of highly saturated colors to these interior spaces.
“Jerry and Evelyn were in the right place at the right time, producing work that was extremely well designed and ideal for these clean-lined modern interiors,” observes Bill Stern, director of the Museum of California Design, adding, “Theirs is the kind of modernism that has not become dated. It’s still fresh.” “The work is timeless,” concurs Gerard O’Brien, owner of Reform Gallery in l. a., which specializes in California Modern. Young collectors, O’Brien says, have taken to the work of the Ackermans, drawn to its whimsy, playfulness and strong sense of narrative and character, as well as to their personal story, “the life they built for themselves, the idea of them being a team, together and sharing, and caring how they went about their craft.”
Through the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the Ackermans successfully sold to the contract furnishings and interior design markets, maintaining their showroom on Beverly Boulevard (it later moved to the Pacific Design Center), while attracting critical notice in important museum shows of the day (including the famous “California Design” series at the Pasadena Art Museum). Their partnership was a harmonious blend of complementary talents and temperaments; Jerome was the “idea guy” and salesman, while Evelyn was happiest behind the scenes, in the studio. “How many couples can work together and last? Not many,” she observes. “If I couldn’t do something, he did it. If he couldn’t do it, I did.” Along with raising their daughter, Laura, born in 1960, “we just worked, all the time. It’s what we wanted to do.” They stopped manufacturing in 1979, after which Jerome continued to sell era products along with quality lines by others. Evelyn went on to write scholarly books on antique dolls and dollhouses (her collecting passion) and devoted almost two years to creating her masterpiece, a series of 40 exquisite cloisonné enamel tiles, each telling an Old Testament story, now in the collection of the Renwick Gallery (and a highlight of the Mingei show). In the 1990s Jerome returned to ceramics, making updated editions of Jenev designs from original molds, as well as unique hand-thrown pieces shown at galleries and museums.
These days the Ackermans are gratified, in their modest fashion, to see a new generation discover and appreciate their work. They’re tickled when their pieces, increasingly collectible, pop up on eBay. In a way, the Mingei retrospective has given this endearing couple a chance to rediscover themselves. “You look at [an old piece] and say, ‘Oh my, did I do that?’” Evelyn marvels. “And I say, ‘Yes, Evelyn, you did that, and you were pretty damn good,’” Jerome affirms fondly. Looking back on their achievement, he reflects, “We did it our way, to quote Sinatra. We did. We didn’t have any help. We didn’t have much money. But we had a dream.”
A Timeline of the Life and Work of Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman
Jerome Ackerman is born in Detroit, Michigan.
Evelyn Ackerman is born Evelyn Lipton in Detroit, Michigan.
Jerome and Evelyn live only six blocks apart and attend the same high school, but their disparity in age means they do not know each other growing up.
In Detroit, Jerome graduates from Central High School and enters Wayne University (now Wayne State) as an art major.
Evelyn graduates from Central High School, Detroit and enters the University of Michigan as an art major.
When the United States enters World War II, Jerome leaves university, works briefly for a naval ordnance plant then joins the Air Force, serving in Germany.
When her mother is left alone after her father’s death and her brothers’ entrance into the military, Evelyn transfers to Wayne University as a fine arts and art history major.
Evelyn receives a Bachelor of Fine Arts (with distinction) and continues in graduate school at Wayne University on a scholarship.
Jerome, discharged from the military, spends six months in Los Angeles and falls in love with the climate, but decides to return to family and friends in Detroit.
Evelyn and Jerome meet at her sister-in-law’s studio, Lucé Lipton Interior Designs where Evelyn works part time; they begin dating.
Evelyn and Jerome marry, September 12, 1948.
Evelyn and Jerome visit his parents in Los Angeles.
While on the West Coast they meet Beatrice Wood and Gertrud and Otto Natzler. They also meet John Follis who, with Rex Goode, designed a series of large-scale ceramic planters in art school. Goode and Follis sold their plans to Rita and Max Lawrence, founders of the firm Architectural Pottery. All become lifelong friends of the Ackermans.
Later that year, the exhibition For Modern Living, organized by architect Alexander Girard at the Detroit Institute of Arts, exposes Evelyn and Jerome to the work of innovative contemporary designers, among them Ray and Charles Eames, opening their eyes to the possibility of careers combining their design and fine arts training.
Selected Exhibitions Jerome’s ceramics are shown in local and national exhibitions (1949, 1950, and 1951).
Evelyn completes Master of Arts in Fine Art.
Jerome completes undergraduate work at Wayne University with the addition of an art teaching credential.
Invited by Chairman Charles Harder, Jerome enters Alfred University’s prestigious New York College of Ceramics.
Selected Exhibitions Syracuse Museum (now Everson Museum) Ceramic National and Traveling Exhibition (1951, 1952 and 1954).
Jerome graduates with a Master of Fine Arts in ceramics.
Evelyn and Jerome decide to establish their careers in California and settle in Los Angeles opening a small space on Federal Avenue. They call their fledgling collaboration, Jenev Design Studio, a combination of their first names.
Selected Exhibitions Decorative Arts and Crafts Exhibition, Wichita, Kansas (1952 and 1953); Kiln Club, Smithsonian Invitational, Washington, D.C. (1952 and 1953).
Jerome spends one year developing his first group of molded ceramics utilizing skills from Alfred University; Evelyn decorates some of them.
Selected Exhibitions Scripps College Invitational (1953, 1954 and 1955); St. Paul Art Center (now Minnesota Museum of American Art) — Clay/Fiber/Metal (1953);Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1954).
First sale of Jenev ceramics to Jules Seltzer, owner of a prominent Los Angeles-based showroom for modernist furniture.
Evelyn, inspired by a contemporary mosaic panel in an exhibition, works with Jerry to design and produce mosaic panels and tables.
The couple’s work appears in the Home magazine section of the Los Angeles Times and many other publications during the next 30 years in recognition of their design talents.
Commission Evelyn designs a series of mosaics with symbols of Swiss cantons for Mammoth Mountain Inn; Paul Palmer, designer.
Selected Exhibitions California Living, Home Fashion League, Los Angeles (1954); California Designed, Long Beach Municipal Art Center and the de Young Museum, San Francisco (1955); California Design I, Pasadena Art Museum (1954-1955).
Forming a partnership with Jerome’s former classmate, architect Sherrill Broudy, Jenev becomes ERA Industries; a few years later they buy out Broudy, but continue the company name and resume association with him in the early 1960s.
Meeting of American Ceramic Society, design division, at Bullock’s department store; photograph appears in Los Angeles Times Home section of attendees, including Jerome and Evelyn Ackerman.
Commission Evelyn designs mosaic mural, Fantasy Landscape, for eight-unit apartment on Kiowa Avenue in West Los Angeles; Sherrill Broudy, architect. Mosaic is registered with the Los Angeles Mural Conservancy.
Selected Exhibitions Craftsmanship in a Changing World, inaugural exhibition, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York City, California Designed, Long Beach Municipal Art Gallery and the Oakland Museum; California Design II, Pasadena Art Museum.
Evelyn’s first tapestry design, Hot Bird*, produced in Mexico by skilled weavers.
Commission Evelyn designs and Jerry produces a series of gold anodized aluminum panels of female figures playing musical instruments for a women’s dress shop in Los Angeles; Robert Mayer, architect.
Commission Jerome creates a sand cast aluminum sculpture for Chandler’s shoe store in Pasadena; Robert Mayer, architect.
Selected Exhibition California Design III, Pasadena Art Museum.
Evelyn becomes interested in the silk screening process and produces a series of designs on various materials; Kites* is her first design.
Jerome designs a colorful group of porcelain enameled metal wall sconces* and table-top candle holders* that prove very popular.
Commission Evelyn designs mosaic mural, Sea, Land and Sky, for office building on Victoria Street, Santa Barbara; Louis Mazzeti, architect.
Selected Exhibition California Design IV, Pasadena Art Museum.
Evelyn designs and Jerome produces their initial group of carved wood bas-relief wall panels, the first of which is St. George and the Dragon.
Evelyn experiments with the hand-hooking technique, leading to a group of designs for area rugs produced in Japan. Competition in the rug market soon leads them to produce smaller wall hangings, adding new designs over the years as well as continuing older ones with minor variations. These become their most popular pieces.
Daughter Laura is born.
Evelyn’s hooked wall hanging, Venetian Dusk, and hooked rug, Diamonds, chosen for illustration in California Design VI, exhibition catalogue.
Selected Exhibition California Design VI, Pasadena Art Museum.
The Ackermans move their showroom to Melrose Avenue at San Vicente Boulevard to be more visible to the design and architecture trade; Pacific Design Center is later built across the street.
Commission Evelyn designs and produces a mosaic wall panel, Women under an Umbrella, for the Carlton Towers Hotel, London; Henry End, interior designer.
Selected Exhibition California Design VII, Pasadena Art Museum
Selected Exhibition California Design VIII, Pasadena Art Museum (after this exhibition the California Design shows became triennials)
Evelyn designs a series of modular carved wood panels* for architectural applications for their former business partner Sherrill Broudy, who forms Panelcarve (later to be renamed Forms+Surfaces) to market them.
The mosaic line is discontinued owing to competition from homeowners copying ERA designs.
Jerome’s growing responsibilities for design, production and marketing necessitate discontinuing the Jenev molded ceramics line.
ERA outgrows the showroom on Melrose Avenue and moves to Beverly Boulevard opposite the Herman Miller showroom.
Evelyn makes finger puppets* in kit form as fund raiser for daughter’s nursery school; later markets them through ERA.
Responding to a need for additional well-designed, contemporary cabinet hardware, Jerome designs the Antico line of hand-cast solid brass knobs and pulls* produced for ERA in Italy.
Selected Exhibition California Design IX, Pasadena Art Museum
Commission As artist-in-charge, Evelyn creates a set of 12 needlepoint hangings for the corporate offices of Litton Industries, Beverly Hills. She adapts postcard size images to 6-by-8-foot tapestries through full-size color drawings. Hangings are embroidered in Greece to Evelyn’s detailed specifications and to-scale cartoons.
Selected Exhibition California Design X, Pasadena Art Museum (1968).
Evelyn designs a set of 20 modular Animal Woodblocks marketed by both Forms+Surfaces and ERA. They are included in California Design XI.
Commission Evelyn’s carved wood modular series, Uccello, for Forms+Surfaces, adapted for doors and transom for Alan Ladd Building, Palm Springs.
Selected Exhibition California Design XI, Pasadena Art Museum
Evelyn designs a successful group of carved wood plaques with a blank lower section that Jerome adapts for a variety of practical applications such as house numbers, key hooks, and wrought iron plant holders (which they market as Plant Huggers). Jerome designs a gourmet line of knife holders and spice racks using smaller versions of Evelyn’s carved wood plaques.
Selected Exhibition California Design 76, presented at the Pacific Design Center by California Design of Pasadena.
After many successful years on Beverly Boulevard, the Ackermans in association with Forms+Surfaces move their showroom to the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, across the street from the location of their second showroom years before.
Commission Evelyn designs four pairs of carved oak doors for the sanctuary at Congregation Ahavas Israel, Grand Rapids, Michigan in memory of her twin sister, Roslyn.
Evelyn creates a 40-piece series of cloisonné enamels, Stories from the Bible*, donated to the Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
Evelyn and Jerome discontinue manufacturing; Evelyn stops designing new products for ERA and Forms+Surfaces. They move from the showroom in the Pacific Design Center into their converted warehouse. Jerome continues to sell ERA products and to represent several quality lines produced by others.
Jerome, semi-retired, produces one-of-a-kind ceramic pieces, participates in numerous Southern California exhibitions and sells in galleries. In response to renewed interest in modernism, he produces select Jenev-like ceramic pieces using the original molds, but in porcelain and with new glaze colors. Jerome also resumes creating hand-thrown, unique pieces that he continues to pursue to the present.
Evelyn and Jerome are included among a select group of artists and designers honored as Legends of Design during West Week, Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles.
Selected Exhibition Evelyn’s Stories from the Bible are selected for the 25th anniversary exhibition Skilled Work: American Craft in the Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
Selected Exhibitions Featured Artist, Jerome Ackerman, Del Mano Gallery, Brentwood; L.A. Modern and Beyond, Los Angeles County Museum of Art at the Pacific Design Center.
Selected Exhibition Color and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950-2000, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Selected Exhibitions Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; California Pottery: Mission to Modernism, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.
Selected Exhibitions California Pottery: Mission to Modernism, Autry Museum, Los Angeles; California Design, R 20th Century Gallery, exhibition in Paris, France.
Selected Exhibitions Jerome’s ceramics in Ink & Clay 30, Kellogg University Art Gallery, California Polytechnic University, Pomona; Evelyn’s Stories from the Bible included in Envisioning Jacob’s Ladder: Religion, Representation and Allusion in American Visual Culture 1750-2000, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery, Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts.
“Design Duo Jerome and Evelyn Ackerman,” by Jeffrey Head appears in Modernism Magazine.
The work of Evelyn and Jerome is included in the book California Design: The Legacy of West Coast Craft and Style co-authored by Jo Lauria and Suzanne Baizerman.
Selected Exhibition The Ackermans’ work is featured in the exhibition California Design at Reform Gallery, Los Angeles.
September 12: Jerome and Evelyn celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.
September 13: They are honored with the Henry Award by the Museum of California Design for their contribution to mid-century California design.
Selected Exhibitions Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman, organized by the Museum of California Design, Palm Springs Modernism Show, February; Masters of Mid-Century California Modernism: Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman, the first retrospective of their life and work organized by Mingei International Museum, San Diego, California.