May 6, 2009
Budapest Designer Melded Classical With Cutting Edge
Can a piece of furniture convey the story of Hungarian Jewry or reveal the genius of a little-known master? The story of a career undercut by anti-Semitism and cut short by death?
This weekend’s “Legends of La Cienega Design Walk” (May 7-9) offers a celebration of design through lectures, panel discussions, book signings, exhibits, guided tours, fashion shows and benefit parties, all taking place along La Cienega Boulevard, on Melrose Place and at the Pacific Design Center.
As part of the weekend’s events, Judith Hoffman will offer a lecture on the furniture and design of the late Hungarian master Lajos Kozma on Friday, May 8, at her store, Szalon.
Hoffman is Budapest-born and Los Angeles-raised, and Szalon carries furniture and design from the Austro-Hungarian early 20th century secessionist period, including the work of some of the most noted from that group, Josef Hoffman (no relation), Adolf Loos and Kozma. I stopped by Szalon on a recent afternoon to hear a preview of Hoffman’s lecture on Kozma, an architect and designer Hoffman sees as on par with Frank Lloyd Wright, and whom others have hailed as a “Renaissance man.”
Kozma (1884-1948) was born in the provincial village of Kiskorpad and arrived in Budapest at the start of the 20th century to study architecture at the Budapest Imperial Joseph College, from which he graduated in 1906. He joined a movement of designers called “The Young Ones,” who traveled around Hungary and Transylvania studying folk art and local architecture.
Kozma’s early graphic design, book covers and illustrations, which Hoffman will show in her lecture, are very much in the art nouveau style, reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and recalling Gustav Klimt, as well. Kozma also apprenticed with the famous architect Bela Latja, and worked for Latja’s firm. During this period, Kozma became famous for designing the interior of the Roszavolgi bookstore, in which glass panels separated several sections of the shop, which was well known for its heavy, carved wood ornamentation — reminiscent as much of both Biedemeier as well as the Scotsman Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School (although pictures remain, the bookstore was demolished in 1961).
In 1913, Kozma founded the Budapest Workshop, following the Viennese model of the Wiener Werkstatte, with the aim of providing highly functional high design for homes and offices, from the structure of the buildings down to every aspect of the interiors, from furniture to floor coverings and lamps. This all was meant to appeal to Budapest’s rising middle class. Kozma’s takeoff on baroque-style furniture came to be known as Kozma-baroque and featured what today would be considered postmodern references to Hungarian folk art motifs, mixing luxurious traditional woods and materials in unexpected ways.
At the end of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire came to an end, and after the short reign of the Bela Kun communist government, Hungary became increasingly conservative under the right-wing Horthy government that followed. Kozma, for his part, designed stores including a well-known pharmacy, a department store and a movie theater, as well as a few apartment buildings and even the Kassa Synagogue.
In the 1930s, Kozma designed several villas in the hills of Buda. It was in these homes — where he designed both the structures as well as every element of the inside, from the floor coverings to the fixtures to the type of glass used in the windows — that he did some of his finest work. He partnered with the furniture company Heisler, and at Szalon can be seen a game table with chairs, a desk chair, a bar and a secretary, all of which Kozma designed, as well as his gorgeous club chairs.
Looking at Kozma’s work today, Hoffman remarks that it seems postmodernist, as if Kozma had been playing with baroque touches, even including elements of Chinoiserie, as he evolved toward a modernist aesthetic.
However, despite his fame and reputation, Kozma received no public commissions. In his later years, Hoffman said, he claimed that it was his liberal sentiments and support of the Bela Kun government that kept him from getting such work.
More likely, however, Hoffman and other experts believe, Kozma’s problem was that he was a Jew in an increasingly anti-Semitic country. By 1938, Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws stripped Kozma of his membership in the Chamber of Architects as well as his license to work. Kozma responded by writing a book of his architectural principles, illustrated by his work, “The New House,” which was published in Switzerland in 1941.
Once the Nazis invaded Hungary, Kozma went into hiding with false papers. Surviving the war, he was reinstated as an architect, received his first public commission for a school, joined the editorial board of a modernist architecture journal Uj Epiteszet (New Architecture) and was appointed both as a director of the School for Applied Arts and a professor in the School of Architecture at Budapest Technical University. Unfortunately, before the school’s new building opened in 1946, Kozma died at age 64.
Hoffman’s own story begins shortly before Kozma’s death. Hoffman was born in 1941 in Budapest to a very middle-class Jewish family. “My father was a merchant,” she told me, “he had a leather supply business.” Her mother was a university-educated artist, a graduate of the School of Applied Arts, an achievement all the more remarkable because in the 1930s there was a quota, the Numerus Clausus, that restricted the number of Jews allowed to attend.
In early 1942, three months after Hoffman was born, her father was conscripted as a Jew into a forced labor battalion. His unit was eventually captured by the opposing Russian forces, and despite being Jewish and a natural enemy of the German forces, the Russians made him a prisoner of war.
In 1944 after the Nazis invaded, Hoffman and her mother were forced to move into Budapest’s ghetto. “The ghetto was bombed, repeatedly,” Hoffman recalled. “And in the winter of 1945, just before it [Budapest] was freed, our building got hit and everyone in it died. I was the only survivor — a 3-year-old child.”
Her maternal grandparents raised her, along with her uncle and aunt, until 1947, when the Russians finally allowed her father to return to what was now communist-controlled Budapest, where he reunited with the 6-year-old daughter he barely knew. He remarried soon after.
Under the communists, Hoffman’s father was allowed to resume his leather trade. But based on what he had experienced under the Soviets during the war, he was not optimistic about the future. In 1956, at the time of the Hungarian revolution, Hoffman’s father and her uncle hired a truck to drive them to the Austrian border. They walked across to freedom.
Hoffman arrived in Los Angeles with her father and stepmother in 1957. She graduated from Hollywood High School and at 19 married a fellow Hungarian, who had also fled to Los Angeles. For the next two decades, she worked in accounting and raised her son (who is now married to a Hungarian girl — proving paprika is as thick as blood). But her passion was for design, and in the 1980s she returned to UCLA to pursue a degree in interior design.
In the 1990s, she began to travel more often to Hungary. “I rediscovered Budapest,” she said. She also began finding Kozma furniture in former government consignment shops, thrift stores and antique shops. At first Hoffman bought the antiques for herself, then for her clients and finally, five years ago, she opened Szalon.
Hoffman describes the Kozma pieces as “so noble. They were such jewels.” She also found that other dealers revere Kozma, as well. As she started collecting the pieces, she found herself learning more and more about Kozma. Whenever someone came to her store and inquired about the pieces, she would launch into a lecture. Doing so evolved into the talk she will give at Szalon on May 8.
In Kozma’s story we see both the glory and the tragedy of that exceptional generation of 20th century Hungarian Jews. The genius of Kozma lies in his ability to mix the traditional and the new, to innovate and create an aesthetic desired by the rising middle class — and yet, because he was a Jew, he found society turned against him. Hoffman, herself the survivor, has championed Kozma, reaching back through history to Hungary itself to rescue him.
In choosing to call her store Szalon, Hoffman refers to a common Hungarian formulation for the spelling of many words, an “s” followed by a “z.” I would like to suggest that Szalon is more than that, however, itself a way, perhaps, of seeing the world: Just as the “z” resembles an “s” that has been flipped, Szalon also reflects the way in which Hungarian culture, as evidenced through Kozma’s design, bounces between the traditional and the modern, between the seen and the hidden, between Magyar and the European, the Hungarian and the Jewish, and how it can once again bounce between the past and the present, between Budapest and Los Angeles.
Judith Hoffman will lecture on the furniture and design of the late Hungarian master Lajos Kozma at Szalon, 910 N. La Cienega Blvd., on Friday, May 8, at 3:30 p.m
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week and his new Tommywood (the blog) appears daily, pretty much.