California Design 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way – currently showing at the Brisbane Art Gallery – introduces Australian audiences to an era of accelerated change experienced in California in the decades before the war, but particularly during and after World War II.
The exhibition traces this cultural and design epoch through more than 250 architectural, industrial, fashion and craft design objects that were made, in part, from war industry technologies and a particularly cooperative spirit that gave rise to a distinct form of modernism – “a loose, albeit clearly recognisable, group of ideas” – that is this exhibition’s focus. Curated by Wendy Kaplan, Department Head and Curator, Decorative Arts and Design, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and her colleague, Associate Curator, Bobbye Tigerman, California Design breathes life into an era many remember or still experience vicariously through mid-century modern films or the popular Mad Men series. In the gallery space, this collection of objects and artefacts creates a dynamic social and cultural history that celebrates human endeavour and the utopian spirit that every age seems to produce, yet few reflect so vividly in its everyday products and philosophies. Objects such as Mattel Inc’s very first Barbie doll, the Charles and Ray Eames-designed moulded plywood chair, and Mary Ann DeWeese’s 1961 spandex and lycra woven stars and stripes woman’s swimsuit, reflect both the playfulness and optimism of this era as much as the idea that good, affordable design for the masses is paramount, perfectly illustrating the Eames’s famous quip: ‘The best for the most for the least.’ First to be seen are two key examples of California modernism, known for its unadorned, functional, and exquisitely realised objects and design vocabularies – a stunning 1964 champagne-coloured, luxury coupé Studebaker Avanti, and secondly (and most remarkably) a shiny 1936 ‘Clipper’ trailer, its riveted aluminium casing (featured on aircraft fuselage) an aesthetic and design wonder, its futuristic, shimmering surface not out of place in the gallery’s clean, contemporary spaces. Enter the exhibition proper and four thematic sections reflect the rich curatorial threads: ‘Shaping’, which traces the emergence of California modernism; ‘Making’, with its focus on manufacture and production; ‘Living’, featuring housing, home interiors, and possibly the bedrock of California modernism – the indoor/outdoor ideal; and lastly, ‘Selling California Modern’, which tracks advertising and commerce because, as featured architectural photographer Julius Shulman once asserted: “Good design is seldom accepted. It has to be sold.” According to Kaplan, World War II produced the technology to make floor-to-ceiling windows, and the all-important steel framing that revolutionised housing design. Arts & Architecture (1929-1967) was a big supporter of residential steel, championing its use by sponsoring the Case Study House program, which commissioned numerous big-name architects (including Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano, Craig Ellwood, and Charles and Ray Eames) to design and build low-cost but practical model homes to help service the housing crisis of post-war America (created by the need to house the millions of returning soldiers and their families). It was the perfect climate for a design and building revolution – particularly in California thanks in part to its buoyant economy, the many big-name architects and designers who lived there (including European émigrés, Neutra, Rudolph Schindler and Greta Magnusson Grossman and natives Millard Sheets, the Eames team and Alvin Lustig) and the benign climate that supported the coveted indoor/outdoor lifestyle. Says Kaplan: “There was the incredible freedom of having the backyard, the pool, and the patio being an extended living room, which really changed the way people occupied space, making it a much more informal way of life, and in doing so, creating the need for different kinds of furniture and clothing.” Kaplan is quick to point out that while it was a period of unprecedented prosperity and optimism, the threat of nuclear annihilation felt real. Gilbert Adrian’s two-piece black dress from The Atomic 50s collection is a great example of using design to assuage people’s fears, Kaplan says, and is one of the many fashion highlights of the exhibition, as is the golden Margit Fellegi Woman’s swimsuit (1950) – probably made as promotion for Esther Williams’ 1952 movie, Million Dollar Mermaid – and the superb two-piece Swoon Suit (1942). California Design – a landmark exhibition tracing one of the great cultural and design epochs in America’s contemporary history – finds the perfect home in the Queensland Art Gallery, and promises to enthral Australian audiences who will no doubt relate to this optimistic, fun-in-the-sun, middle-class utopia that produced – to borrow Frank Lloyd Wright’s apt description – “beautiful [and affordable] forms for human use”. California Design 1930–1965: Living In A Modern Way shows at the Queensland Art Gallery, South Brisbane, until February 9, 2014. qagoma.qld.gov.au/californiadesign Images: 1) Charles Eames, 1907–1978 active Venice; Ray Eames, 1912–1988 active Venice Molded Plywood Division, Evans Products Company; 1943–47 Venice Elephant 1945, Molded plywood Eames Collection, LLC; © The Eames Foundation. Courtesy Eames Office LLC 2) Raymond Loewy for Studebaker Corporation Avanti automobile (image from company brochure) designed 1961, manufactured 1963–64 / Courtesy: Studebaker National Museum, South Bend, Indiana 3) Gertrud Natzler, b. Austria 1908–1971 active Los Angeles; Otto Natzler, b. Austria 1908–2007 active Los Angeles Bowl 1943, Earthenware LACMA, Gift of Rose A. Sperry 1972 Revocable Trust; © 2007 Gail Reynolds Natzler, Trustee of The Natzler Trust. Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA. 4) Alvin Lustig, 1915–1955 active Los Angeles New Directions 1936–present New York publisher A Season in Hell (book) 1945, Offset lithography Museum of California Design, Los Angeles, Gift of Mark and Maura Resnick A SEASON IN HELL by Arthur Rimbaud, © 1945 by Alvin Lustig. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 5) Richard Neutra, 1892–1970 active Los Angeles, Kaufmann House Palm Springs 1946 Photo by Julius Shulman, 1947 Getty Research Institute, © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute