“California design is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions….It has developed out of our own preferences for living in a modern way,” explained architect and designer Greta Magnusson Grossman in 1951. Casually, she captured the essence of midcentury West Coast design—a movement built on climatic, economic, and technological responses to Los Angeles combined with a non-doctrinaire embrace of modernism. It’s her quote that opens California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way,” the latest exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
California Design is part of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980, a six-month initiative that brings together some 60 institutions across Southern California in a collaborative reassessment of nearly a half century of cultural production. The show is a broadminded survey of thirty-five years worth of design, covering fashion, textiles and ceramics as well as architecture, graphic and industrial design. LACMA curators Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman filled the space with a broad range of some 350 objects, including a R.M Schindler dresser, a Julius Shulman print, a lobster-print bikini by Catalina Sportswear, Architectural Pottery’s garden sculpture.
The diverse inventory sorts into four interlocking categories: Shaping, Making, Living, Selling, linked together by a playful installation by Los Angeles architects Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung. They created a curving platform topped by a simple steel and corrugated plastic display armature. As the set piece winds its way through the LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion, designed by Renzo Piano, it evokes a mash-up of references from different periods: balloon frame construction, Googie coffee shops, and the Decon experiments of the 1980s. Still, the helix form serves as a unifying gesture in the warehouse-like space.
It’s unfortunate that the LACMA curators dropped the last line of Magnusson Grossman’s remarks on California design from the introductory wall text: “It expresses our habits and our tastes.” Because the show is at it’s best when it expresses these quirks: the kind of “Fruitbowl Moderism” critic Karrie Jacobs wrote about in the first issue of Dwell, way back in 2000, before it codified into a prescribed aesthetic on the Tumblr site Unhappy Hipsters. This legacy begins with John Entenza’s Art and Architecture. Copies of the magazine pepper the show and a rouges’ gallery—framed images of notable buildings by notable photographers—represents those characters that filled its pages: Shulman, Koenig, Eichler, Eckbo, Soriano.
The exhibition also tracks cultural developments, such as influences from Latin America and Asia (a textile printed with sombreros) or the giddy rise followed by the post-war fear of atomic technologies (DIY guides for bomb shelters). But their efforts come off as stale, never building the exigency needed to understand that designs of this era spring from a multicultural city fueled by the aerospace industry.
Within the history of mid-century design, the idiosyncratic Charles and Ray Eames wholly embody “preferences for living in a modern way.” To prove this point, Kaplan and Tigerman collaborated with Hodgetts and Fung to recreate the iconic living room of the Eameses’ Pacific Palisades home. Begun in the mid-40s, it was built as part of The Case Study House Program. The museum packed up the contents of the room and, after a brief fumigation, transported them to gallery. (The Los Angeles Times and LACMA produced a time-lapse video of the packing.) The resulting tableau allows viewers to circulate around the outside of the ersatz windows and voyeur-like peer in on the domestic scene.
This isn’t the first time the Eameses’ were given this kind of treatment. In 1995, Bay Area architect Jim Jennings reconstructed the pair’s conference room at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for the exhibition Humane Technology: The Eames Studio and Beyond. There, it was the Eameses collections of twine and tape that revealed an inexhaustible pursuit of design. Here, it’s books, Chinese lanterns, animal hides, and Inuit sculpture. Yet, however faithful the reproduction, and however tantalizing it is to press your nose to the window to get a better view of the titles on the shelves, there are a couple things missing. Namely, light and nature. Piano’s expansive north-facing windows cannot replace the power of western rays filtered by eucalyptus trees.