[Alyson Kuhn] California Design 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way” opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Oct. 1, 2011. Originally scheduled to run for six months — twice LACMA’s usual length — the exhibition has proven popular beyond the curators’ wildest expectations. Very early on, CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director Michael Govan realized the museum had a hit on its hands, and immediately moved to extend the show’s run until June 3. When I toured the show two weeks ago, attendance had just passed the 300,000 mark, placing it in LACMA’s all-time top 10 shows in terms of visitors. And it immediately coasted smoothly into my all-time top 10 museum shows. Avanti!
The accompanying book, California Design 1930–1965, is a compendium of insightful and richly illustrated essays. The cover is an homage to Saul Bass’ album cover for Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color, Capitol Records 1956. Photo: Mick Hodgson.
Edited by LACMA’s Wendy Kaplan (department head and curator of Decorative Arts and Design), the companion book is much more than a catalog … and already in its third printing. We will showcase the book — designed by Mick Hodgson of Ph.D, A Design Studio — in a separate feature this Friday. Now, on to the show, with expert commentary from co-curator Bobbye Tigerman.
The long object (mounted at center rear) is a body litter prototype designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1943. Although the prototype never went into production, the technology was used to make the famous Eames molded plywood chairs.
Tigerman makes two great points as soon as we have peeked in the Airstream. Of the body litter prototype, she comments, “Many technological innovations in molded plywood, fiberglass and steel and glass construction that were developed for wartime needs were adapted to peacetime applications after World War II.” She draws our attention to the exhibition’s subtitle, “Living in a Modern Way,” and says, “This is from a description by Greta Magnusson Grossman, one of the designers in the show, an émigré from Sweden who came to Los Angeles in 1940. In 1951 she said that California design ‘is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions … that has developed out of our own preferences for living in a modern way.’”
Wendy Kaplan’s introductory essay to the book opens with a full-page shot of the actual magazine cover. The magazine answered the question, “What makes the California Look?” right on the cover, with a single-line caption, set in all-caps typewriter type: “In this abstract arrangement are the glowing color, originality of treatment and simplicity of design that typify the California look.” Later in Kaplan’s essay, she includes the full-column key to the cover, identifying all the articles and their respective designers.
Wow: A chaise lounge designed by Walter Lamb for Brown-Jordan Company (c. 1954); a planter designed by La Gardo Tackett and John Follis for Architectural Pottery (c. 1957); a pair of surfboards, one Hobie and one Greg Noll … and Charles and Ray Eames’ entire living room (to the left).
Tigerman emphasizes, “‘Living in a modern way’ became a guiding principle for us, to show that California design wasn’t a style with particular attributes that characterized this period, but rather an attitude, an openness to new materials, new techniques, new ways of doing things. Juxtaposing expensive things with inexpensive things, having the rare with the familiar, was part of this attitude or way of living that Greta Grossman was getting at. Many of the objects in the show speak to this idea.”
Speaking of the objects in the show: There are about 350, excluding the 1600-ish in the Eames’ living room. Tigerman says, “Since we started planning this show five years ago,we have acquired over 110 objects for LACMA’s permanent collection. Along the way, it has always been a priority to build LACMA’s collection of California design. Combined with several objects we already owned, almost half of the pieces in the show belong to LACMA.” The majority of these were donated (and meticulously credited in the catalog), many by collectors or the artists themselves. Flea markets and eBay have also been great sources of finds. Tigerman walks us over to a pristine pitcher, which looks like ceramic but turns out to be plastic. She gleefully says, “$15!”
Now for the Eames living room! While a lot of architecture is preserved in Los Angeles, it’s rare for a building to have been preserved but not have been changed in the last half century. The Eames House has been kept as it was at Ray’s death in 1988. Kaplan and Tigerman had always hoped to show an authentic modern interior in the exhibition — and photos of the Eames House as early as the mid-’50s show, according to Tigerman, “the same arrangement of furniture, and many of the same objects arrayed throughout the room. We approached the Eames Foundation, and asked them if they would be willing to loan the contents of the living room.”
The timing was perfect: The Eames Foundation was hoping to restore the floors in the Eames House, and needed somewhere to safely store the contents of the living room. What better place than a museum? Tigerman continues, “Moving the living room involved almost every department in the museum. We needed to assess what kind of packing equipment would be required. Some of the objects are very fragile and had never been removed before. The bookcase itself had never been out of the living room, so we had to be very careful.” Then, all of the organic materials — textiles and books — had to be frozen, to mitigate a possible infestation. Yes, everything was put in a truck-sized freezer before being allowed into the museum. You can watch the Los Angeles Times time-lapse video of the packing process right here.
Last but not at all least: The exhibition is full of ephemera, including publications, some tasty mid-century letterpress, travel posters, advertisements … and letterheads designed by Alvin Lustig, lent by his widow, Elaine Lustig Cohen. Tigerman had the pleasure of choosing which examples of Lustig’s work to show. She says, “We ended up selecting letterheads that represented individuals and companies in the creative fields in Los Angeles as a way to demonstrate the interconnectedness of the design and arts communities. But we also thought they were important to include because they’re completely fun!”
California Design 1930–1965 is completely fun. Seeing it in its natural habitat, on a sunny day, with palm trees out every window was truly glorious. If you can’t get to LACMA before June 3, the book is the consummate consolation — and we will feature it on Felt & Wire this Friday.
Except as noted, all photos © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA