Acting on advice from a friend, Jerry Ackerman walked into an interior-design studio in Detroit one day in 1948 where Evelyn Lipton was working. Producing two candy bars from his pocket, he said, “Hi, I’m Jerry Ackerman. Would you like a Milky Way?”
Evelyn was charmed. “I would have married Jerry the first time I met him,” she recalled. And so began not only a lifelong romance but a design partnership that would land the couple’s ceramics, mosaics, tapestries, woodcarvings and hardware in homes, offices, museums and private collections around the country and place their names firmly among the pioneers and practitioners of what would eventually be termed California design.
[On November 1, 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.]
In the fall of 1949, while both art students at what is now Wayne State University in Detroit, they visited An Exhibition For Modern Living, a show curated by Alexander Girard at the Detroit Institute of Art. The experience would have a deep influence on the couple. 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 recalls. “We thought, if the Eameses can do it, why can’t we?”
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.
In 1952, armed with MFA degrees and a dream of running a ceramics studio, they set out for California. Jerry, a veteran of World War II, had earned his graduate degree on the G.I. Bill from Alfred University in New York, one of the top ceramics schools in the country.
California was booming in the early 1950s – alive with a postwar, new-frontier spirit that influenced architecture, design, crafts and lifestyle. New residents like the Ackermans were flocking in from all over the country and finding a climate and a spirit conducive to new ideas and experimentation.
The couple had a goal of making affordable decorative objects for “young couples like ourselves.” They knew, though, that wheel-thrown pottery, Jerry’s passion, could not provide a living. So Jerry 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, they 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 recalls with a laugh.
Their ceramics caught the eye of furniture designer Paul McCobb, who bought them for his home and also his showrooms, giving Jenev national exposure as makers of unique modern home furnishings, and as pioneers in the burgeoning California design movement. In 1954, the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) held the first California Design exhibition focused mainly on decorative arts produced by designer-craftspeople in and around Los Angeles. Despite having been on the California scene for only a year, the Ackerman’s work was included in that first show and in all 11 that followed to 1976. More than 50 of their works in all were selected.
By the mid-1950s, the Ackermans began expanding into other decorative veins, 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. The couple continued to collaborate on designs throughout their long career.
“Our goal was to design things with character that were well made,” Evelyn said.
They took pride in making everything themselves, but eventually the increasing demand led them to seek out skilled craftspeople in Mexico, Japan, Italy, Greece and India to fashion pieces according to Evelyn’s meticulous directions. It was an example of ethical sourcing decades before that practice became a buzzword. In the meantime, Jenev became Era Industries and their reputations grew along with increasing product diversity and wider distribution. They worked with many of the major design and architectural figures of the time, including Welton Becket, Craig Ellwood, Arthur Elrod, Victor Gruen, A. Quincy Jones, Richard Meier and many more.
“We were ahead of the curve in terms of decorative accessories. Before our tapestries, mosaics and woodcarvings, generally everything that went into a house was either a painting or a print,” Jerry says.
In the 1980s, the Ackermans refocused their creativity on personal pursuits and stopped producing commercial work for Era. Evelyn took on an ambitious project depicting 40 iconic scenes from the bible on 3-inch-square cloisonné tiles. She spent a year and a half on Stories from the Bible (1984-85), describing it as a “work of passion.” The piece is now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Jerry, meanwhile, returned to wheel-thrown stoneware for the first time in almost 30 years, free to explore his early inspiration from ancient Chinese pottery as well as the work of Shōji Hamada and Bernard Leach. Despite the long layoff, his vigor reawakened in explorations of textures, surface treatments and glazes. His work from that time is in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.
“How many couples can work and live together and last? Not many,” Evelyn mused late in life. “If I couldn’t do something, Jerry did it. If he couldn’t do something, I did. We just worked all the time; it’s what we wanted to do. We were a perfect match. He made it possible for me to be what I am and who I am. Wherever Jerry wanted to be, I wanted to be.”
“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.”
Evelyn died November 28, 2012, at 88. Jerry still lives in the house in Culver City where they lived and worked together for more than 60 years.
Renewed interest in their lives and work has resulted in museum shows, awards, special events and a book, 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.
Their work is also included in a current exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico, 1915–1985.
• 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
• Evelyn Ackerman Launch Pad Journal – From Los Angeles County Museum of Art
• An Exhibit for Modern Living, (1949) Detroit Institute of Art