Reviewing this feast, one senses both the magnitude and the dilemma of Sandhaus’ project: How to organize an incredibly rich era of design that achieves its seductive energy by refusing the prevailing order—and, perhaps, any order. The upside is the eclecticism and breadth of the work. The downside is that the original concept— California graphic design as a product of myriad upheavals—never gets much critical momentum. But herein Sandhaus implicitly reinforces a different point: To be truly “Californian,” the prescribed order has to be subverted as a means to achieve creative autonomy. We certainly see this dissident spirit in both the work and the lives of several of the designers represented in this book—Oskar Fischinger buys back a film project from Paramount to continue the experiment on his own terms; Barbara Stauffacher Solomon rejects the entire profession as too hamstrung by capitalism; and, perhaps most dramatically, designer and Catholic nun Sister Corita Kent abandons her convent over its refusal to adopt the institutional updates of Vatican II.
Sandhaus does make plain the idiosyncratic curatorial filter that she used to select the included body of work. The book, she said, is “like a dinner party that serves only desserts.” The desserts are decidedly beautiful, their array stunning, and the dessert cart is noteworthy, if a bit baroque. But the sugar high risks leaving the reader both over-stimulated and under-nourished.
Still, the rich tour of California work and the diligently researched backstories far outweigh questions of structure and critical clarity. Earthquakes is a deeply informative and visually rewarding review of a place and time largely overlooked by more standardized histories. Its seismic effect will be two-fold: First, it firmly establishes the impact of California’s contribution to the development of an American modernism; and second, it reinforces the postmodern form of the “eccentric history”—a hybrid of personal experience and historical fact, à la Reyner Banham—as perhaps the only way to honor the multiplicities that we inadequately file under the title “modernism.”