Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman: The House that Love Built

Author

Laura Ackerman-Shaw

Tags

Newsletter, docomomo, Growing up modern, special edition
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“Your house is weird,” declared my friend, Renee. It was 1970 and I was 10 years old. My friends lived with avocado green kitchens, burnt orange shag carpets, and overstuffed Lazy-Boys. They definitely did not live with Mies van der Rohe, Hans Wegner, and Saarinen funiture or their dad’s hardware and mom’s woodcarvings. An eclectic mix filled our home, effortlessly curated by my parents, Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman. Mexican folk art, kachinas, African masks, and kilims were juxtaposed with their artwork from paintings to tapestries. As newlyweds, they purchased a Nelson bench, Aalto stools, and Eames chairs from Herman Miller. They traded with friends Max and Rita Lawrence (Architectural Pottery), Peter Voulkos, and Sam Maloof. Often pieces from craftsmen like Pepe Mendoza, whom they introduced to the U.S., migrated from their showroom to our house.

 

My parents bought our house in Culver City, California, in 1956. They annexed a light-filled studio with floor-to-ceiling fireplace and terra cotta floors. Doors set atop filing cabinets cleverly served as counters while a handmade drafting table was mom’s work area. An adjoining smaller studio functioned as a multipurpose space, converted in high school to my darkroom.

 

Two pieces hung above my Danish modern bed. A large applique, “The House That Love Built,” displayed finger puppets mom had designed and sewed. They became kits for a preschool fundraiser, ultimately garnering awards and press. When the other piece in my room, mom’s whimsical “Garden” hooking, appeared in a cartoon, dad joked, “You know you’ve made it when you’re in Playboy.”

Unlike me, my parents didn’t grow up in artistic homes. Creativity and self-expression were encouraged, rather than imposed. I attended art classes and even learned cloisonné from mom. Instead of crayons, I used pastels, colored pencils, and exacto knives. For my fifth birthday, my parents wrote and performed a play with handmade puppets and stage. A skilled seamstress, mom made dolls, stuffed animals, and numerous Halloween costumes. When she stopped smoking, she busied herself making a dollhouse, a project that led her to become a collector, authority, and author on antique dolls and toys. No one in that world knew about her artistic talents.

 

Dad smoked a pipe, mom wore Marimekko—I thought they were very sophisticated. Devoted parents, Evy and Jerry as they were known, maintained deep friendships for decades, respected for their warmth, intelligence, generosity, and kindness. A natural entertainer, dad loved music, and although formal training was cut short by WWII, he was always singing and whistling. His signature humor filled stories and songs he wrote for me.

 

They believed in education (both had MFAs) and an expectation of college was implicit. I loved animals, intending to become a veterinarian. In kindergarten I begged for a Newfoundland—my parents finally succumbed, but with a smaller breed. That first day, I remember proudly bringing my puppy to the showroom. Ultimately, I followed a different professional path, combining my love of art and language in publishing for 35 years.

 

At the heart of my parents’ narrative is an unwavering love story—for each other, for me, for design. September 12, 2018, would have been their 70th anniversary. Growing up blocks apart in Depression-era Detroit, they attended the same schools but never met thanks to a 4-year age difference. At Wayne University (now Wayne State University), they met once before dad left college when WWII intervened. A chance remark by a friend led to a meeting and they married in 1948. Confessing she would have married dad the first time they met, mom professed that love every day until her passing in 2012.

Their personal and professional lives intertwined, and their six-decade love affair resulted in a partnership that produced a prolific body of work across a wide variety of media including ceramics, mosaics, tapestries, woodcarvings, and hardware. In 1963 West Coast Sourcebook noted, “In the case of ERA’s designer-owners, who work so closely together, it is proper to speak of a single career.” While their personalities were completely different—mom was shy, dad gregarious—they shared a singular vision and a commitment to each other and their work. They laughed that few people could work together for so many years and survive let alone thrive.

 

Inspired by Alexander Girard’s 1949 exhibit “For Modern Living,” they mused, “If the Eames can do it, why can’t we?” With a potent blend of optimism, talent, and tenacity, they grounded their passion in their work ethic, “We were in love and we loved what we were doing.” Uprooting themselves from Michigan, the couple moved to California to pursue their creative efforts, attracted to the booming post-war economy and sunny climate. That environment influenced their warm, textural, organic mid-century modern style. In 1953, they launched Jenev (a combination of Jerry and Evelyn) from a $66-a-month studio.

 

A team who maintained their individuality, my parents collaborated closely while drawing upon distinct artistic visions. A deep mutual respect for each other’s abilities allowed them to meld complimentary talents. Committed to accessible, affordable, beautiful design “for young couples like ourselves,” they worked seven days a week for the first few years. Jenev morphed into ERA Industries—dad ran the growing business while mom became the primary designer. With an unerring sense of color and pattern, she moved effortlessly between abstract and figural, creating designs adaptable to commercial and residential applications. Despite the constant demand for new products, they produced only designs that met their aesthetic and quality standards. Ultimately, they realized it wasn’t feasible to make everything on their own, leading them to cultivate skilled craftspeople around the world.

 

Despite their global relationships, my parents didn’t travel much. Mom hated flying and regretfully we didn’t visit the ateliers in Mexico, Japan, Italy, and other countries that produced their designs. Now I love to travel, perhaps in part due to this. Occasionally we visited family in Detroit where an abundance of doctors and dentists considered us California bohemians. For most family vacations, we piled into our station wagon to Palm Springs, San Diego, San Francisco, Idyllwild, or dad’s self-described “beach bum” Malibu rental.

Growing up, I didn’t understand my parents’ influence on me. An only child, I learned about good design by osmosis, exposed to artists, architects, designers, and curators. I devoured publications like LA Times Home Magazine, which often featured my parents’ work, Graphis, and Sunset. At exhibitions, they encouraged curiosity and engagement, instructing me to select my favorite piece not based on notoriety, but on what appealed to me. Years later, I repeated the same exercise with my son.

 

Often working at home, mom immersed herself intensely in each project. Small tissue-paper drawings in vibrant hues reflected her talent as an illustrator. Designs went into production with full-size drawings and color instructions for mosaics and wallhangings, elevation notes for woodcarvings and hardware. In the 1960s there were no computers, no email, no fax—everything was hand drawn, communication was via phone and mail. They even created all their marketing and sales materials.

 

In 1964, ERA moved from Melrose (ironically their last showroom in the Pacific Design Center was across the street) to Beverly Boulevard. I loved visiting the showroom or exploring Jules Seltzer, Herman Miller, and Knoll a few doors down. I was less fond of the sisal carpet, installed long before it was chic, because it hurt my bare feet. As a teen, while friends toiled at Winchell’s Donuts, I graduated from stuffing catalogs in the warehouse to assisting interior designers in the showroom and buyers at trade shows. To the trade, FOB, out on memo were part of my lexicon. Normal was accompanying foreign visitors to Disneyland, picking up boxes at customs, and seeing public displays of my parents’ work. Dad, a gifted salesman, occasionally took me on calls to architects like Pelli, Gruen, Ellwood, and Dorman. Imagine my surprise much later when my husband and I purchased an Eichler home only to discover my parents had been friends!

 

I experienced the business firsthand—the effort required to manage marketing, sales, displays, vendors, accounting, and inventory. They embraced experimentation and leveraged industrial techniques for creative production solutions. Despite being a small operation with a few employees and independent sales representatives, they ran the business with integrity, offering profit sharing and medical insurance. They seemed to know everyone, and always had a personal touch. Long before it was a buzz word, they ethically sourced their production around the world, working with the same families for generations.

 

It never occurred to me that growing up modern or Ackerman was special. I’m still surprised and touched when people express admiration for my parents and their designs. Like most children of well-known designers, it took me years to realize the significance of their contributions. My parents never sought recognition, nor did they ever imagine their work would be considered iconic. They never saw themselves as influential, yet Jonathan Adler acknowledges their long and successful design career as an inspiration.

Once under the radar, their work is increasingly appreciated, its timeless quality transcending mid-century modern—a term that didn’t exist when they were active. As a child, I attended California Design exhibitions with my parents, at the time not understanding their rare distinction of having works included in every exhibit from 1954 to 1976. On a whim, I nominated them for distinguished alumni awards at their alma maters. At age 90 and 86, my parents returned to Detroit to receive the Wayne award and, later that year, dad was recognized by Alfred, where he received his MFA. LA Conservancy, MOCAD, and other organizations’ awards followed.  

 

A resurgence of interest led to museum retrospectives highlighting the breadth and depth of their talent. Seeing my parents, smiling at each other in disbelief at their first opening, was memorable. Other exhibitions featured representative pieces, most recently the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Found in Translation” where mom’s bold “Launch Pad” tapestry became an ambassador of sorts, appearing on the catalog frontispiece and a journal for the store. Museums and private individuals collect their work, including the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian.

 

As publications covered their story, Handcrafted Modern included them alongside Eames, Bertoia, Nakashima and other luminaries. Aptly titled Hand-in-Hand, a book on this design duo’s life and work allowed me to serve as the behind-the-scenes consultant. A Modernism Week event provided additional exposure and premiered the short film In Tandem. In a heartwarming moment, dad and old friend architect Don Wexler held hands as they dedicated mom’s Panelcarve doors at one of his buildings.

 

That their designs continued to be relevant, even collectible, made my parents proud. While many architectural applications of their work have been lost, mom’s “Castles” Panelcarve wall in the UCLA Faculty Center was one of the reasons the building was saved. It’s rewarding to see their work still in situ, and I periodically visit a 60-year-old mosaic gracing a Los Angeles apartment.

Ironically, I resisted joining the family business and only as an adult did I fully appreciate my experience growing up and how exemplary my parents were, both as designers and people. I didn’t believe I was artistic enough to follow their path but found a new role as steward of the Ackerman legacy. I found myself asking, how do I keep their legacy alive now and into the future, make it relevant and current, and respect, inform, and expand it? It’s rewarding and challenging to make decisions impacting the preservation, protection, and promotion of their legacy. I founded Ackerman Modern to support and extend the interest in my parents’ designs, even releasing limited-editions, utilizing skilled craftsmen like my parents. Eventually I’d like to establish an Ackerman art scholarship, work with organizations interested in their archives, and mount additional exhibitions and events.

 

Part of ensuring a legacy is introducing it to a new audience while staying true to the originals. It’s important to me find the right partners committed to authenticity. We were fortunate to collaborate with Design Within Reach on a reissue of Jenev ceramics. We retrieved 65-year-old molds and worked with their team to remaster pieces that adhered to the original vision. When DWR refreshed Koenig’s Case Study House #22 (the Stahl House), they placed the ceramics in the living room alongside iconic pieces like the Eames lounge chair. They fit perfectly, at once period appropriate and completely contemporary, validating my belief in the timeless appeal of their story and work.

 

For years, dad’s wheel from Alfred University sat disassembled in the garage. I didn’t see him throw until he “retired” from ERA in the 1980s, a 30-year hiatus. Ceramics classes at a nearby college provided access to supplies, wheel, and kiln. He befriended the professor, developing clay bodies and glazes. I never asked him to teach me how to throw, but last year, inspired by the DWR work, he showed me how to cast. His deft movements despite arthritic hands, facile skills from 70 years ago, and unabated love of clay was remarkable. The Wall Street Journal even included his Jenev candleholders in their holiday gift guide of “rare” objects.

 

Growing up modern affected me in profound ways that I didn’t recognize for many years. Now I truly appreciate how extraordinary my parents were in all aspects of their life, marriage, and work and how lucky I was to grow up in a house that love built.

About the Author

 

A native of Los Angeles, Laura Ackerman-Shaw received a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in English literature from Stanford University. She worked in publishing for 35 years as a divisional director managing design, production, editorial, and translations. In 2015 Laura established Ackerman Modern and currently serves as the Executive Director. She has given presentations, coordinated events, and written articles about her parents’ life and work for various organizations and publications. Laura and her husband, Marc, live in the Bay Area in a mid-century modern Eichler home where their son, Aaron, grew up.