Clay Culture: Jenev Re-Release

1 Jenev Collection designed by Jerome Ackerman 1953, produced by Design Within Reach, 2017. Courtesy of Design Within Reach. Photo: Marius Chira.

Laura Ackerman-Shaw worked with her father, Jerome Ackerman, and Design Within Reach to re-release a collection of iconic Jenev ceramic vessels.

Ackerman Modern recently collaborated with Design Within Reach (DWR), a well-known retailer of authentic, modern designs by iconic designers, to re-release a collection of Jenev ceramics that were first produced in 1953. The collection includes six functional and decorative vessels—bowls, vases, and a jar. The new pieces are being produced based on the original plaster molds and masters, as well as the original glaze combinations.

Jenev and Era Industries

For more than 50 years, artists/designers Jerome (Jerry) and Evelyn Ackerman played a central role in the distinctive aesthetic of California Mid-Century Modernism. They joined their complementary talents and deep knowledge of art, craft, and design to create a remarkable body of work.

Jerry, now 98, came to ceramics rather late in life—after he returned from serving in WWII and went back to Wayne University (now Wayne State University) in Detroit, Michigan, to finish his undergraduate degree. He was 29 when he took his first ceramics class. Recruited for the Alfred University masters program, he completed his graduate degree in 1952.

Soon after, the Ackermans moved to California and set up Jenev Design Studio where Jerry spent the first year developing shapes, molds, and glazes. “I wanted to explore the spirit of clay and what could be done with a simple, honest approach to form, function, and decoration. I developed shapes that related to each other, that played off of each other in their curvilinear yet clean and simple forms. I wanted a group that would be handsome together. When I developed the glazes, I decided to use black and white because it was simple and clean and would go with anything.”

Like the Eames, the Ackermans strove to make beautiful objects that were accessible. “We worked really hard, but it was easy because we were in love and we loved what we were doing,” recalled Evelyn, who passed away in 2012. When they launched Jenev, Jerry recognized that “I could not make a living doing hand-thrown pottery alone unless I was teaching, like my friends Peter Voulkos or Otto Heino. So I moved on to the next thing that I had become proficient at while at Alfred—developing a line of slip-cast, limited production ceramics. I realized very quickly that it was necessary to make something that more than one person at a time could buy.”

They found an exciting post-war climate for craft, “When we moved to California, it was a time of optimism and exploration. There was a housing boom and that urban living called for pieces that worked on a domestic scale, in smaller spaces. In response, our designs were pieces that were made to be lived with.”

By the mid 1950s, the Ackermans expanded their award-winning designs as Era Industries with mosaics, tapestries, woodcarvings, and hardware. After a 30-year hiatus, Jerry returned to his “first love,” ceramics, in the 1990s, once again hand throwing stoneware. “I loved the tactile. It’s so different from painting on a flat surface. It’s the three-dimensional tactile quality of shaping something on the wheel or by coil or by slab.”

2 Jerome Ackerman, pictured at his drafting table with original Jenev pieces and catalogs, 2017. Courtesy of Ackerman Modern.

The Collaborative Process

Our decision to work with Design Within Reach (DWR) stemmed not only from their interest in the product, but also in telling the story of the designer. Jerry and Evelyn’s experience as partners in life and design is an inspiring narrative, and it provides context to help understand the products they developed. “It was important to me that any reissues remained true to my original designs,” Jerry explains. “The philosophy of DWR mirrors a guiding principle that Evelyn and I followed, which was to make well-designed objects at affordable prices for people like us.”

We collaborated closely with DWR through the entire process of developing the reissued Jenev ceramics. The key focus with DWR’s product development team was to ensure fidelity to the original pieces. Ultimately, DWR selected six designs for their collection from the original 16 Jenev pieces created in 1953.

Original molds and masters from the archives were shared with DWR so that a new set of hand-carved masters could be crafted by James Klein of KleinReid. Then, DWR engaged the same manufacturing company that produces their Eva Zeisel line to create production molds for slip casting.

Matte glazes in black and white were matched as closely as possible to the originals and the blue was developed as an accent color in line with period appropriate and Jenev color palettes. Each vessel is hand dipped, and on the black-and-white pieces, there’s a subtle overlap that connects the two colors.

The Appeal of Mid-Century Modern

When asked about the continued interest in Mid-Century Modern design, Jerry notes, “Well designed pieces with a timeless look and appeal still feel fresh and modern and will always resonate with an audience, whether 60 years ago or today.”

“The popularity of eBay and 1stDibs, Herman Miller and Knoll, television series Mad Men, Palm Springs Modernism Week, and media coverage have promoted Mid-Century Modern design to a new audience, exposing it to a new generation.” Jerry observes, then laughs, “Of course, we never referred to ourselves as ‘mid-century’ designers, that term came much later.”

Regarding the continued interest in their designs, he explains, “I like to think that my Jenev ceramics are classic, simple, timeless shapes with clean lines and organic curves. There’s an honesty of form and material. My designs, like many mid-century designs, are functional, but also sleek and stylish. When I look at the Jenev ceramic designs today, they hold up, and I’m proud of that.”

Ackerman designs are in many private and museum collections, including the Smithsonian and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Learn more about their life and work in the book Hand-in-Hand (Chavkin and Thackaberry, Pointed Leaf Press) and at www.ackermanmodern.com and http://blog.dwr.com/2017/12/01/jerome-and-evelyn-ackerman-celebrating-a-designing-couple.

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