Review: ‘California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way’ at LACMA


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The first object you see in “California Design 1930-1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way,’” which opens Saturday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is an impossibly shiny aluminum Airstream trailer from 1936. Think of it as an aerodynamic time machine — or a dose of design-world Prozac, complete with wheels and lacquered cabinets — ready to whisk you off to a version of our state that could hardly be more different from the one we inhabit today.

The California in the exhibition, one of LACMA’s major contributions to the Pacific Standard Time series, is bathed in an optimistic glow, adding population faster than it can tally the growth and ready, even impatient, to embrace the future. It is the state before Proposition 13 and bankrupt cities north and south, before the Watts riots or either of Jerry Brown’s stints in Sacramento, before Joan Didion symbolically renounced her California citizenship by calling her 2003 collection of essays “Where I Was From,” emphasis very much on the past tense.


Nobody is renouncing anything in “California Design,” organized by Wendy Kaplan, who heads the department of decorative arts and design at LACMA, and Bobbye Tigerman, a curator in the department. Though the show begins with references to the Depression and World War II, and hints later on at the political and aesthetic battles of the late 1960s and 1970s, it’s the upbeat, cooperative spirit of postwar design that the curators are keenest to convey.

And though the scholarship that supports the show is the product of a five-year research effort, the exhibition itself, designed with noticeable joie de vivre by the architects Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, has an irresistibly light touch, offering a few dozen rays of sunshine for every drop of noir. Its tone is set less by objects that suggest the power of economic and technological forces remaking the culture in the postwar years, though there are some of those, than by symbols of carefree or stylish domesticity: bathing suits with oversized lobsters on them, album covers by the great graphic designer Saul Bass and an “ice gun” ready to shoot perfectly shaped cubes into a tumbler.

The focus of “California Design,” a charmingly overstuffed show that includes ceramics, furniture, video and movie clips, toys, graphic design, jewelry, clothes, photographs and textiles, is the domestic interior of the midcentury years. Its protagonists are the talented polymaths — Charles and Ray Eames, Millard Sheets and Alvin Lustig among them — who helped shape a distinctly regional version of residential modernism both in and around Los Angeles and in the Bay Area. (A re-creation of the Eames’ 1949 steel-framed house in Pacific Palisades, filled with the actual contents of the couple’s living room, gets pride of place in the show’s second half.) A starring role is also played by a long list of European émigrés who arrived in California in the early and middle decades of the 20th century, including the architects Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler and J.R. Davidson and the designers Kem Weber, Greta Magnusson Grossman and Jock Peters.

California modernism was a distinct style from its earliest years. It traded the social conscience of the Bauhaus for an approach to design that was not only “looser, warmer” and often “ad hoc,” as Kaplan puts in the catalog, and more expressive of local character, but also entirely comfortable with the notion of salesmanship and the realities of commerce. Indeed, of the exhibition’s four thematic sections, the one on “Selling California Modern” arguably makes up the heart of the show. The other sections are “Shaping,” on the early years of California modernism; “Making,” on materials and fabrication; and “Living,” on housing, furnishings and the indoor-outdoor postwar aesthetic made possible by a benign climate.

Many of the show’s 350 objects are arranged on a series of tall, curving panels, tracing a helix-shaped pattern on the floors, that Hodgetts and Fung devised in an effort to give the hangar-like space of Renzo Piano’s Resnick Pavilion a sense of intimacy and domestic scale and to protect the more sensitive items from light. They have also put objects inside little hallways and eddies of space and even — as the exhibition moves toward the northern edge of the building, with its huge windows — inside small cabana-like structures.

The obvious risk of an exhibition like this, of course, is that the material will seem overly familiar, dulled by overexposure. Even if LACMA is right in billing the exhibition as the museum world’s “first major study of California midcentury modern design,” the period has been exhaustively reexamined in recent years by designers, retailers and scholars alike.

Still, Kaplan and Tigerman deserve credit for mixing in so many lesser-known figures and overlooked corners of design practice alongside the greatest hits of Julius Shulman and the Eameses. The many designers they’ve rescued from relative obscurity include Zahara Schatz, represented here by a 1949 lamp with electrical wiring that doubles as a Joan Miro-like pattern, and Trude Guermonprez, whose 1964 sample weaving for a synagogue in San Rafael is made up of silk and metallic yarn in shimmering shades of pink, orange, red and purple.

Even if it gives Northern California rather short shrift, this is an uncommonly rich and layered show. It is also one, refreshingly, that doesn’t pretend that design history ends with the objects on view. One of the most intriguing aspects of the curators’ approach is the subtle way they foreshadow the changes that would remake architecture and design in the 1970s and 80s.

The most important way that those professions pivoted — as the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley and the riots in Los Angeles gave way to Vietnam protests and counterculture nonconformism — was to trade optimism for a darker sensibility, and indeed to trade the idea that design’s chief focus is to solve problems for an interest in using creative work to reflect societal fissures and political tensions. The key difference between a Craig Ellwood house from the 1950s and Frank Gehry house from the 1980s, in other words, is that the former uses architecture to resolve contradiction and the latter uses it to dramatize, or even redouble, contradiction.

Kaplan and Tigerman signal this very shift by including a small item by the graphic designer Jack Stauffacher near the end of the exhibition. In 1963, as he was getting ready to leave a post at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh to become director of typography at Stanford University Press, Stauffacher designed a letterpress note to share the news. A short bit of text is repeated on four sides of a square card, so that the words begin to cover one another.

The phrase “I would like to announce to my friends that” is left unobscured, but the rest of the message is almost impossible to make out. It is not simply a piece of graphic design that toys with notions of clarity and legibility. It’s a sign that clarity and legibility — like sunny optimism and an unquestioned belief in growth — are soon to be knocked from the pedestals where California’s midcentury designers so carefully placed them.


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Photo (top): An installation shot of ‘California Design.’ Credit: LACMA.

Photo (middle): The 1958 Mirman house in Arcadia by Buff, Straub and Hensman. Credit: Julius Shulman.

Photo (bottom): A book cover designed by Alvin Lustig. Credit: LACMA.