Career Case Study #7: Serge Chermayeff
The life and career of Serge Chermayeff (1900-1996) were vastly different from those of Ivan Leonidov (1902-1959), subject of the previous Career Case Study. They were also much longer.
Chermayeff made a series of good career moves, the first of which was being born into a rich Jewish family in 1900. True, it was in Chechnya in the then Russian Empire but he soon corrected that at age ten by going to England to be educated at Harrow, along the way losing the “i” off Sergei – most likely en-route in France. At seventeen and accepted into Cambridge, the Russian Revolution happened and his family had its fortune confiscated. Miffed, he threw his suitcase of useless cash out the window, and became … a ballroom dancer. All we’re told of the next five years is that he spent them in Argentina learning the tango and that he came back an instant hero.
In 1928 when Leonidov was being propelled to architectural superstardom on the back of his Lenin Institute of Librarianship, Chermayeff was one of London’s best known young interior designers and a British citizen.
Here’s a side cabinet by Chermayeff, 1930.
A 1996 Chicago Tribune obituary placed the early 1930’s Chermayeffin a series of architectural firms and on the faculty of the European Mediterranean Academy in Cavaliere, France. [Chermayeff’s parents were now in Paris, living off a big bag of jewelery they left Russia with.] He got around. Spin-off product design from his interior design work was lucrative, and architectural work followed. Here’s a radio he designed, moulded from the then new wonder synthetic plastic, Bakelite (polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride).
Chermayeff’s career defied the usual progression. He begn with being famous and then moved into product design, then architecture, and finally academia. We often read about people “starting a practice” and it’s made to sound simple but it shows he had 1) promises of at least two jobs, 2) confidence those jobs would happen and 3) some buffer startup capital. Here’s Shann House, one of his first, completed 1933 the same year as the radio.
Eric Mendelsohn joined him in partnership 1933–1936. [Mendelsohn became a British citizen in 1938 and three years later emigrated to the US to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. For the record, Marcel Breuer arrived in Great Britain in 1930, leaving in 1937 to teach at Harvard.] Shrubbs Wood was completed 1934 in the Mendelsohn years.
There was also the De La Warr Paviliion which Chermayeff and Mendelsohn won the RIBA-run competition for. It was begun and completed [!] in 1935. William Curtis implies Mendelsohn was the brains behind its planning. Not that it matters as photographs tend to focus on the lovely staircase
even though there’s much more to the building.
In 1972 it had a glass conservatory added by someone called Norman Foster.
The house in the distance is Levy House, designed by Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry and completed 1936. [Gropius had arrived in the UK in 1934, worked with Fry two years until 1936 when he accepted a job offer from Harvard’s department of architecture, initially teaching but 1938-1952 as chairman.] Chermayeff completed Gilbey House in 1938 in the short time between Mendelsohn’s leaving and his own Brexit in 1940.
Bentley Wood was the house Chermayeff designed for him and his family. Completed in 1938, it it’s said to be Britain’s first modern house – if one forgets the 1933 Shann House, 1934 Shrubbs House, 1935 Cohen House …
Frank Lloyd Wright came to have a look. Life was good. No-one’s owning up to having designed this extension.
I doubt Chermayeff would’ve cared, for Bentley Wood proved to be the demise of Chermayeff’s career in England, as the costs of the house made him bankrupt shortly after moving in, forcing him to leave England for America. It’s probably not as simple as that. November 1938 was Kristallnacht and September 1939 the German invasion of Poland. It’s easy to imagine a few spooked clients pulling out of deals and creating cashflow problems. If Chermayeff’s practice was still a partnership, he’d have had to sell his personal assets to honour his debts, including any home loan he may have taken out. Bankruptcy would be a likely result if he couldn’t but trustees would normally prevent a bona-fide bankrupt leaving the country for any length of time. Conclusion: there probably was some sort of financial unpleasantness and, as it had been before, Chermayeff’s solution was to change countries.
Over in America, good friends Walter and Ise looked after the kids while Serge found work teaching at the then California School of Fine Arts 1941-1942. He was simultaneously an associate architect and employee of San Fransiscan residential architect Clarence W. W. Mayhew and co-authored Mayhew’s house.
Chermayeff’s California sojourn wasn’t to last long. In 1942 he took up an offer to head the new art department at Brooklyn College, Columbia University. It can’t have suited for Chermayeff applied himself to architectural problems, publishing his Park Type Apartments Study (that we saw earlier in March’s 1+1/2 Floor Apartment post) in 1943, neatly solving a problem from two decades earlier even though there’s nothing in Chermayeff’s history to indicate he had any time for The Constructivists and their concerns with spatial and resource efficiency. [Adding some more width to the corridor level enables the kitchen and dining areas to stay together on that level as a functional unit. The lower apartments have no division between dining and living and the upper apartments have the dining area overlooking the living area in an equally sensible arrangement.]
Chermayeff bought a cabin in Wellfleet from Jack Philips who, more than anyone else, is responsible for Cape Cod becoming an enclave of emigré modernist architects. Here’s the family there in 1944.
In 1946 Walter Gropius recommended Chermayeffto serve as president of the Institute of Design in Chicago. In 1952, Chermayeff taught briefly at MIT and designed himself a new house and studio in Wellfleet.
Life was good again.
In 1952 Gropius recommended him to head the department of architecture at Harvard. Twenty years earlier, Chermayeff had had no education beyond high school and was yet to design a house. This shows that teaching architecture is something you can just pick up and become good at, like with English and ballroom dancing.
“You could hate him, or dislike him, but you had to respect the man for how he approached the subject. He did not compromise. [His] values were too high. As a result, he could be quite brutal,” said one former student. Chermayeff’s sons were also his students at Harvard, which must have been awkward for everyone. We don’t know why Chermayeff left Harvard but he always seemed to land on his feet. He joined the architecture faculty at Yale in 1962 and stayed nine years until retiring in 1970.
From then until he died in 1996, the Chermayeff narrative shifts to his sons and, in turn, to his grandson but you can read about those elsewhere.
As a career case study, what can we learn from Serge Chermayeff?
Obviously, a belief in one’s own worth is a good thing for any parent to instil in a child. A sense of entitlement doesn’t hurt. A need for the limelight and adulation doesn’t go astray in fields of showbiz or architecture. And a nose for survival – whether to avoid war or to follow the market – is a good thing and if it means changing countries then so be it. Parents with a big bag of jewelry, aristocratic genes and the connections that go with them are all plusses.
Chermayeff did nothing more – and no less – than take advantage of the opportunities that came his way. It’s usually only after architects die that we get to hear about opportunities bestowed and opportunities taken, favours done and favours owed, and the familial duties and friendship obligations that motivated them. We know a lot about Chermayeff’s life for it was bigger than his career. We don’t get to say that about too many architects.
• • •