May 29, 2012

California Design: Lifestyles of Desire

Though I was in Los Angeles in February, I only recently rediscovered my notes on “California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way” (still on at LACMA) and the associated symposium “New Narratives for ‘Living in a Modern Way’”, so thought I should post them here before the exhibition finishes. In addition to the exhibition and symposium, the accompanying catalogue comprised a rare opportunity to engage with focused research on design culture within a specific place and time. California design was not defined by curators Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman in aesthetic terms but instead as design that, as émigré Greta Magnusson Grossman put it, “developed out of our own preferences for living in a modern way”. The image of post-war California as a land of opportunity, optimism and prosperity encouraged modern designers with a marketplace for stylish new objects, while the casual way of living and mild climate created – at least in the domestic realm – an informal attitude rather than a coherent style. However, as the exhibition also made clear, California’s design culture was conceived through an increasingly individualized form of consumerism, founded on the single family suburban home filled with a constellation of new objects that comprised a desirable modern lifestyle.

The exhibition was generous in its breadth, including furniture design, architecture, landscape design, fashion, graphics, everyday domestic objects, ceramics, jewelry and even children’s toys (the original Barbie and Ken dolls and Barbie’s Dream House were crowd favorites). Typical of gallery displays, these objects were decontextualized and presented as isolated pieces, although short interviews with designers and contextual video material such as contemporary advertisements tempered this a little, while the catalogue provided even more context. Two examples at the exhibition’s entrance – the Airstream Clipper and the Eames’ ‘body litter’ stretcher – highlighted for me some issues with presenting design in an art gallery context. The Clipper’s riveted aluminum panels and streamlined form (see image above) functioned more as a seductive and evocative icon of mobility rather than representative of the reality of 1930s caravan culture. Close by, the Eames’ response to immobility, a plywood stretcher prototype developed during WWII but never mass-produced, is interesting as a collectable artifact due to its famous creators and their subsequent work rather than its useful service during the war. Raymond Loewy’s glamorous Avanti sports car for Studebaker similarly failed commercially, and I wondered if its inclusion was more as an exhibition crowd pleaser rather than an object emblematic of California design culture.

Above: Charles and Ray Eames, leg splint, 1941-42 above an Eames DCW chair, 1946-49: these were their more successful plywood products. Below: Kem Weber, desk and chair, 1938.

Reservations aside, I thought the exhibition contained much stimulating material. California’s émigré design stars were well represented, with furniture designed by Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, Greta Magnusson Grossman and Kem Weber (see image above), along with Paul László’s abstract textile designs, and brief cameos by Walter Landor (a single poster) and retail design pioneer Victor Gruen (a lamp). Exemplary California fashion included 1930s Levis’ “Western” wear and glamorous 1950s swimsuits. Graphic design’s representation was strong, ranging from 1940s book covers by Alvin Lustig for modern literature publishers New Directions to Saul Bass’ innovative movie posters, promotional material and film title sequences. The full-scale recreation of the Eames’ House Living Room seemed another crowd favorite, and an impressive undertaking. In all, 1,869 items were meticulously cataloged and reassembled in the recreated steel-framed space. In contrast to the sparse spaces and hard edges of pre-war European modernist interiors, the Eames’ living room embodied a casual, comfortable, and personalized California modernism. But my favorite object in the exhibition was the bright red 1935 “ice gun” (see image below), an elaborate cocktail hour accessory inspired by science fiction “ray guns” and designed to crush a single ice cube into a drink by squeezing the trigger. I searched the gift store in vain for a contemporary reproduction to take home.

Beyond displaying individual objects, the exhibition documented California as a lifestyle production center. Thankfully, it covered not only the Case Study Houses so beloved of architects globally but also mass developments such as Joseph Eichler’s, displayed through not only aspirational photographs but also via sketches, plans, and promotional material. The text of the Eichler Homes brochure equated California living as a permanent vacation: “designed to make your everyday a holiday”. However, there seemed to be a lingering disjunction between the progressive social vision and private spaces of leisure and the reality of segregated housing and the absence of African Americans and Latino populations from the post-war California Dream. The suburban dream, conceived within an automobile infrastructure, was manifest through a house filled with designer props that not only implied but also shaped certain ways of living, working and leisure activities.

Above: Danny Ho Fong for Tropi-Cal, Wave chaise, 1966; with textiles left to right by Olga Lee, Ray Eames and Barney Reid.

“California Design” touched on the state’s defense and aerospace industries here and there, but I would have liked to know more detail about materials, processes and knowledge transfers from these industries to post-war design (though there was more information in the catalogue). Cold War ideology was also touched upon briefly – the idealized private home of modern comfort was used to promote an American way of life in Cold War Europe (Greg Castillo’s Cold War on the Home Front: the Soft Power of Midcentury Design, covered this topic well, as did the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2008 exhibition Cold War Modern). The movie industry was also lurking in the background of the exhibition, and I also wondered if this connection might have been worth pursuing further. Beyond Saul Bass, there was little to suggest the local design industry’s contributions to or connections with Hollywood. Finally, fast food franchises – McDonald’s, Denny’s, Carl’s Jr, Jack-in-the-Box, and Taco Bell – and their distinctive architecture and graphic signage were developed largely in California during this period and could have taken our understanding of California design further from the domestic realm.

Above: A. Quincy Jones and Frederick E. Emmons, Sofa and Table from the Spencer House, Beverly Hills, 1961-64, and cocktail table by Milo Baughman for Glenn of California, c.1950.

The symposium, “New Narratives for ‘Living in a Modern Way’” (also at LACMA on February 24 and 25), was a rich addition to the exhibition, with two days of presentations on California design. Pierluigi Serrianio detailed photography’s impact on promoting California’s modern architecture of the 1940s and 50s and the critical role of newspapers and magazines (from the highbrow Arts and Architecture to the more widely known Sunset: the Magazine of Western Living) in disseminating images of modern life in California that spread and became standard global lifestyles of desire. Monica Penick revisited the role of Home Beautiful magazine editor Elizabeth Gordon in championing Californian design as indigenous and democratic modernism as opposed to the impersonal austerity, political associations and foreignness of International Style modernism. But for me, the most enjoyable session was a panel discussion featuring graphic designer Lou Danziger, architect Ray Kappe, and designer Gere Kavanaugh who described the small and close knit California modernist community in the 1940s and 50s as one with a sense of shared commitment of “cleaning up the world of trash”. Kavanaugh further described her work with Gruen’s office, which specialized in unpopular retail and commercial design, as a cosmopolitan incubator of ideas (where a young Frank Gehry worked). The trio also made clear the major influence of Lustig, both with his teaching at Art Center in the 1940s, and as a key “connector” within the Los Angeles design scene.

Above: 1950s record covers by designers such as Saul Bass and William Claxton.
Below: Chair by Richard Neutra for the Channel Heights Housing Project for defense workers, 1941-42.

Both exhibition and symposium ended in 1965, around which time the giddy days of Californian modernism seemed to fade and American society began to change. However, as a center of the counterculture and popular environmental consciousness, California remained culturally influential in the late 1960s and 70s, as Glenn Adamson documented in his final wrap up of the symposium. For design, some of the utopian promises of the sixties counter-culture morphed into the Silicon Valley scene of the late 1970s. The latter’s legacy, beyond simply the global businesses it spawned (notably Apple and Microsoft) remains in two opposing approaches that seemed to me to be already there in the California design culture presented in the exhibition. The first is a collaborative, open environment of innovation and improvisation, now exemplified by Creative Commons, while the second is the total consumerism, control and built-in obsolescence exemplified by Apple. Today, with Apple inscribing mobile communications devices with “Designed by Apple in California” (though as Adamson noted, “crafted” by hand in China), and fashion brand American Apparel advertising their generic clothes as “Made in Downtown Los Angeles”, there is evidently still some remaining designer cache left in California.

Further resources:
The LACMA exhibition has a great free App featuring images and text from "California Design" as well as brief video interviews with designers (Apple only!).
An excellent web resource on Southern California architectural history by John Crosse, is well worth visiting.

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