Appreciation: Jerry Ackerman, California modern pioneer.

The Ackermans unloading their Jenev ceramics from the kiln in 1954 in their studio in West Los Angeles. Photo by Milton Lipton.

JEROME ACKERMAN 1920-2019

Armed with MFA degrees, Jerome and Evelyn Ackerman set out for California in 1952 from their hometown of Detroit – with a dream of making affordable decorative objects for “young couples like ourselves.” Not only did that dream come true but their individual and cooperative work earned them a place among the pioneers of California modern design and representation in many museum collections, including the Smithsonian. Jerry, as he was called by friends and family, died March 30, 2019, at age 99 at his home in Culver City, California, where he and Evelyn worked together for more than 60 years. (Evelyn died November 28, 2012, at 88.)

Their dream had taken root in the fall of 1949, when, as art students, they visited a An Exhibition For Modern Living, curated by Alexander Girard at the Detroit Institute of Art. There they encountered for the first time the work of Alvar Aalto, Harry Bertoia, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Jens Risom, Eero Saarinen, Eva Zeisel and many more. “It opened our eyes to an exciting new way of thinking and design expression,” Jerry recalled. “We thought, if the Eameses can do it, why can’t we? We can at least try.”

Their first step was a visit to the Herman Miller store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they bought a Nelson Bench, Eames chairs and Aalto stools that would stay with them throughout their lives.

Jerry had earned his MFA from Alfred University in western New York, one of the top ceramics schools in the country, then and now. There he learned everything needed to set up a professional studio. After settling in California, he spent 1953 designing a line of 16 slip-cast bottles, bowls, vases, candleholders and cups and the plaster molds and glazes to create and finish them. The next year, in a 1,000-square-foot rented studio in West Los Angeles, Jerry and Evelyn began making slip-cast ceramics, inspired by the Bauhaus tenet espousing the unification of art, craft and production. They named their partnership Jenev Design Studio, derived from the “Je” and “Ev” of their names. “We thought it sounded very European,” Jerry recalled. The ceramics caught the eye of furniture designer Paul McCobb, and they were off and running.

[In 2017, DWR launched the Jenev Collection, an assortment of six of the Ackerman’s original 16 ceramic designs. The molds for the collection were made from Jerry’s 1953 originals.]

Wheel-thrown stoneware with signature surface produced in the 1990s by Jerry Ackerman after 30 years away from the craft.

By the mid-1950s, the Ackermans began expanding into other decorative arts, beginning with mosaics and eventually including wall hangings, woodcarvings and cast hardware. Evelyn, quiet and shy but endlessly creative, took the lead, displaying great skill in design and use of color, pattern, texture and technique. Jerry, gregarious and outgoing, left ceramics behind and focused on production, marketing and sales of their fast-growing line.

Eventually, the Ackermans were able to return to individual artistic pursuits, Evelyn to collectible dolls and cloisonné, and Jerry back to the potter’s wheel after a 30-year hiatus. They continued to collaborate on designs as they had from the beginning.

“The fact that we were able to stay together and work together side by side and produce what we felt was an enduring body of work made us happy,” Jerry says. “It was a wonderful life together.”

Jerry Ackerman at home in 2018 with ceramics he designed in 1953 and helped put back into production by DWR in 2017.

Related topics

The Ackerman’s story is told in Hand-In-Hand: Ceramics, Mosaics, Tapestries and Woodcarvings by the California Mid-Century Designers Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman by Dan Chavkin and Lisa Thackaberry from Pointed Leaf Press.
Jerome and Evelyn Ackerman: Celebrating a designing couple (blog post).

• Ackerman Modern – Official website of the Ackermans’ life and work.

• Smithsonian American Art Museum, Permanent Collection

– Stories from the Bible by Evelyn Ackerman.

– Ceramics by Jerome Ackerman.

• Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Permanent Collection

– By Evelyn Ackerman

– By Jerome Ackerman

– Jenev Collection

• An Exhibit for Modern Living, (1949) Detroit Institute of Art

From the Eames perspective

From the George Nelson perspective