Virtually every object in LACMA’s exhibit California Design 1930–1965 is both gorgeous and designed for daily life. The chairs, clothes, houses, vases, sound systems, and teapots show that the average Californian’s home could be enough to make the Sun King not only blink, but also drool.
California’s midcentury modern design is now an accepted totem for its rare mating of genius, technology, and commonplace functionality. Still, it’s thrilling to see the artifacts that excited the world in the 1950s do so again today. From any angle, these are objects to startle, delight, and amaze: the colors and textures of Dorothy Liebes’ fabrics, the crystal geometries of Lloyd Wright’s Christmas cards, the shapely curves of Raymond Loewy and team’s Avanti, the delight of Greta Magnusson Grossman’s desk legs, the luscious rhythms of Victor Gruen’s candy emporium chandelier—and on and on.
Pleasure is the indispensable ingredient that California contributed to International Modernism. In Europe you often needed a saint’s ascetic devotion to be a true Modernist. In California you needed a swimsuit. Probably too much is made of the early European training of some of the designers included (Kem Weber, Richard Neutra, J. R. Davidson, R. M. Schindler, Paul Laszlo, etc.). Their vibrant colors, comfortable patio lounges, and relaxed homes hardly hint of Vienna, Paris, or Berlin. These designs are about California living not European theories.
The exhibit, curated by LACMA’s Wendy Kaplan with Bobbye Tigerman, presents most of the famous highlights of the era, including Weber’s Airline Chair, Julius Shulman’s photograph of the Kaufmann House, Gregory Ain’s Avenel Apartments, Saul Bass’s poster for “Man With the Golden Arm,” and the Eames Storage Unit. The show even recreates the Eames house at full-scale with the actual contents of that legendary living space. Beyond such famous highlights, the exhibit widens the scope of our knowledge by focusing on some deserving designers, including Grossman, Laszlo, Paul Frankl, Carlos Diniz, and Alvin Lustig, who have lingered at the margins of fame for too long.
I wished to see even more such designers: including architect Jack Hillmer would have better represented Northern California and provided a fresh reassessment of California design.
The exhibit concentrates on domestic design, which seems to echo the old trope that California design is only about the private house—that there’s no public life here. The exhibit would have broken valuable new ground if it had balanced home life with more of the state’s commercial and public design, which was at least as creative and influential. Among the few items in the show alluding to design for commerce are an exquisite inlaid table by Jock Peters for Bullocks Wilshire and the delightful 1952 chandelier by Victor Gruen Associates for Barton’s Bonbonierre.
There is so much more from which to select in this time period: S. Charles Lee’s Streamline and Hollywood Regency movie theaters, along with their murals and decorative plasterwork, were a shared public experience. As were the Art Moderne office towers of Stiles O. Clements and Timothy Pflueger that were adorned with terra cotta designs. In the 1940s and 1950s, the California coffee shops of Wayne McAllister and Armet & Davis provided, in effect, public living rooms and patios, with decorative modern lighting fixtures and artwork by craftsman such as Hans Werner. Also apropos is the public art of Millard Sheets and his colleagues, prominent in many banks and office buildings of the 1950s and 1960s.
Fortunately the exhibit’s excellent design by architecture firm Hodgetts + Fung is a lesson in the applied history of California commercial design. It skillfully balances drama, surprise, and the unfolding of both the bold scale of California’s car-culture and sensitive human-scaled design. The open, undulating screen running through the center of LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion is an enormous optical moiré, turning the geometric graphics of Arts + Architecture magazine covers into three dimensions. The biomorphic display areas create movement to keep visitors circulating while allowing for quiet side areas and the intimate focus of a jewelry case.
California design lives on. Its technological play is still breathtaking, still practical. They hold their own. But California design’s full embrace of popular life and taste, and its elevation of commercial design still need to be better appreciated. This exhibit, while thrilling, could have established a broader, more challenging narrative to help us understand our own heritage.