Palm Springs to Celebrate the Ackermans

Jerry Ackerman, in partnership with his wife, Evelyn, who designed most of their art, turned out affordable art and decor in many media, all of it modern in style, much of it playful. Photos courtesy of Laura Ackerman-Shaw

When Laura Ackerman-Shaw spends time this February in Palm Springs to help put on the event 'Partners in Design: Evelyn & Jerome Ackerman, An Intimate Look,' it will be a bit like coming home.

Laura, who lives in an Eichler home in Mountain View, grew up in Culver City, a pleasant city encased like a bee in amber by sprawling Los Angeles. But growing up she spent much time in the desert city.

Her dad, Jerry Ackerman, and mom, Evelyn Ackerman (née Lipton), went there often because Jerry was buddies with his cousin, Irwin Rubenstein ('Ruby'), who owned the popular nightclub Ruby’s Dunes. Laura remembers seeing Frank Sinatra there, dining with friends at his special table.

“My parents worked with so many of the architects known for their work [in the desert], including Donald Wexler, William Cody, William Krisel, Hugh Kaptur, and interior designers like Arthur Elrod and Steve Chase,” Laura says.

Evelyn's design for this 1964 tapestry, 'Buildings,' displays the childlike side of her art.

The Ackerman program will also be special because it marks the centennial of Jerry’s birth. Jerry died in March this year at age 99. Evelyn, whom he adored, died in 2012.

The event, which will include a film screening, a panel discussion, and a talk by Laura about her parents and about growing up modern, will take place at 10 a.m. February 20 at the Annenberg Theater, Palm Springs Art Museum.

It’s just one of dozens of events at Palm Springs Modernism Week, which has become a pilgrimage for modernism fans from across the globe. The extended 'week,' which runs February 13-23, includes tours (various Albert Frey houses, 'Frank Sinatra’s Neighborhood'), talks, 'Atomic Age Tablescapes: An Exhibit of Delicious Dinnerware from 1955,' parties, and more.

The event keeps growing by 20 to 30 percent every year. In 2019, some 150,000 people made it to at least one event.

Here are a couple of mosaics that were designed by Evelyn, 'Mermaid,' and 'Ellipses,' from 1958.

Laura Ackerman-Shaw is on a quest to promote the legacy of her parents, who pioneered the idea that fine modern design could be produced at a price young modern homeowners could afford – just as Joe Eichler produced homes in the same category.

There are even several tie-ins between the Ackermans and Eichler, most pointedly the time in the early 1950s when they met.

Jerry and Evelyn had yet to start their family firm that designed ceramics, mosaics, wall panels in wood, works in metal, textiles, and more. But they were moving in that direction and thinking of relocating north.

They met Joe at his office and visited homebuilding sites with him. He encouraged them.

Evelyn, Jerry, and Laura Ackerman, with their dog Archie, were an everyday American family, except their lives were devoted to art.

“I said, ‘We’re doing ceramics,’” Jerry said in an interview ten years ago. “‘How would we make a living up here?’"

"He said, ‘Jerry, I’m going to be building enough houses up here that if you could sell a pot to each one of these houses, you’ll be doing fine.’"

"He was a good salesman,” Jerry said of Joe.

But Jerry and Evelyn remained in Southern California, turning their non-descript tract homes into a mid-century modern pad filled with work of their own creation and a wide variety of other art, including tribal art and, in later years, Evelyn’s collection of doll houses.

Like Matt Kahn, an artist who did work for Eichler, the Ackermans believed in mixing and matching a wide variety of art and design. They were good friends with Matt, Laura says. Matt, who did interior design among his many projects, often bought Ackerman designs for homes.

Besides helping put on 'Partners,' Laura is making 2020 a special year for the Ackermans by creating “two endowments in honor of my parents at their alma maters,” she says.

'Op 66' is a tapestry from 1966, designed by Evelyn and handwoven by crafts people in Mexico.

“The Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman Endowed Scholarship at Wayne State University will be for an art student in the College of Fine, Performing, and Communication Arts.  The Jerome Ackerman Endowed Internship at the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum is for a ceramics student from Alfred University. Both will be awarded for the first time in 2020.

Although Jerry was an accomplished potter, and some of his designs are being marketed today by Design Within Reach, for much of their career together Evelyn was the designer and Jerry the businessman, running the showroom, meeting with architects and interior designers, and contracting with crafts people in Mexico, Japan, and elsewhere to turn designs into limited lines of product.

The Ackermans had learned early on that if all they turned out were custom one-of-a-kind pieces, none of their buyers would be the newly married couples that they were when they went into business.

In the 24-minute movie that will be shown as part of the event, ‘In Tandem: The Life and Work of Jerry and Evelyn Ackerman,’ Jerry summarizes their business plan: “Stick within a reasonable price point, and create something that we would put in our home.” He pauses. “It worked.”

The panel will feature Peter Loughrey, Trina Turk, Gerard O’Brien, Jo Lauria, and Dale Gluckman—curators, design experts, and designers. Laura appreciates Turk’s participation as “an iconic designer herself.”

In the movie, Loughry discusses the Ackermans’ move from one-of-a-kind work to production:

“Craftsmen like the Ackerman, and the Natzlers, for example, had to figure out how do we scale up without losing our artistic integrity?” Loughry says. “And the Ackermans were able to do that brilliantly.”

Keep in touch with the Eichler Network. SUBSCRIBE to our free e-newsletter