The big book of California Design 1930–1965

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[Alyson Kuhn] Earlier this week, we featured the California Design 1930–1965 exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Today, we focus on the companion book, edited by LACMA’s Wendy Kaplan and designed by Mick Hodgson of Ph.D, A Design Studio. The jacket flap describes the book as the “first comprehensive study of mid-century modern California design [offering] new research and ideas,” and it delivers handsomely, with engaging essays by 10 academicians and authors. And don’t let the word study disenchant you. This is a deluxe 6-lb. box of eye candy, offering up 350 illustrations in spreads where simplicity reigns and sunniness is implied.

For the spine, Hodgson designed striped cloth. Books are covered in three different colors of Wibalin Buckram: dark blue (shown here), red and orange. The title is blind stamped. Photo by Mick Hodgson.

Hodgson himself is not a Californian. Born and raised in London, he graduated from Brighton College of Art. He comments, “The mid-century period was very much about people emigrating to California and reacting to two things: the light and color. As an immigrant myself, I completely relate to that, and I wanted the book itself to be light and airy and colorful — whereas many museum catalogs tend to be dark and dense.”

The visual buffet starts with seven spreads showcasing a single object per page. Left: Desk designed by Dan Johnson for Hayden Hall, 1947. Right: Elephant designed by Charles and Ray Eames, 1945. Note the black-and-white endsheet, adapted from an original design by Alvin Lustig for Laverne Originals (Incantation textile, c. 1947).

The chapter opener for Glenn Adamson’s essay features a period photo. The footnote reads: “7.1. Sam Maloof. Executive office chair, c. 1962. Walnut and leather. From California Design 8 (Pasadena: Pasadena Art Museum, 1962), p. 27.”

LACMA’s former head of Publications, Nola Butler, managed the project. I ask Butler whether this book differs in any key ways from other projects she’s overseen. She offers two observations. “For most museum catalogs, you’re in the position of using photos from multiple sources — different photographers, varying quality, inconsistent lighting levels and background colors — and trying to make them work together. For this book, because the curators acquired so many pieces for the exhibition — and many others were lent locally — we were able to do almost all new photography, which is rare. This allowed us to get a consistently clean, minimal look.” Hodgson met several times with LACMA photographer Peter Brenner early on to discuss Hodgson’s vision (and his preference for shooting on white seamless whenever possible, with soft shadows).

Spread from Bill Stern’s essay “War and Peace: Unexpected Dividends,” detailing California’s prominence during World War II as a center for innovation in manufacturing and design.

The roadside barricade light (in the spread above at lower right) by Henry Keck caught Hodgson’s eye. “It looked so fantastic as a full-page image — but ultimately what dictated most of the image sizes was the curators’ notated list of the pieces, rating them as small, medium or large. Medium, of course, is where I had the most leeway to use my intuition.”

In Stern’s essay, this photo (Eames Office, 1943) of a prototype for a body litter (Charles and Ray Eames for Molded Plywood Division, Evans Products Company) is paired with a new photo of a molded plywood Eames chair.

Butler’s second observation concerns the general presentation of objects. She says, “The curators [Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman] and I saw this as an art book rather than ‘merely’ a design book — in other words, we treated the objects as works of art. The book jacket, for example, ended up being more of a reproduction — rather than a reinterpretation — of the brilliant album cover Saul Bass designed for Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color [Capitol Records, 1956]. You can see the original cover design in the book and in the exhibition. Back then, art was actually applied to the cover as a gigantic sticker. When Mick pointed this out, we all agreed with his suggestion that the book jacket have white borders to mimic the effect.”

Illustration from Wendy Kaplan’s introduction. The footnote reads: “1.5 Carlos Diniz for Ladd & Kelsey, Architects. Monarch Bay Homes, Laguna Niguel (outdoor dining terrace), 1961. Expert delineator Carlos Diniz evoked the casual ease of outdoor dining in this rendering used to promote Monarch Bay, an upscale housing development.”

The typeface used throughout the book is Gotham, designed by Hoefler & Frere-Jones. Hodgson remarks, “It could seem a little ironic, choosing a typeface inspired by New York building signage for a book about California design. I chose it because I love that it combines legibility with openness. It sets quite wide; it’s not compact in any way.” Hodgson’s design grid for the photographs and type includes wide margins and a generous border.

Full-page view of Arts and Architecture cover, September 1953, designed by John Follis and James Reed.

Here’s how Hodgson explains to me the coordination of text and images: “The object cannot appear before it has been mentioned in the text. Once it has been mentioned, it must appear within the next two spreads. When you change the size of an image, this may cause text to reflow. It may also bump another image back a page, which may put it too far from its reference in the text. When you have several objects mentioned in a single paragraph, things get even more complex.” I comment that it sounds like a board game of a parking garage, where you have to move umpteen cars to get yours out. Hodgson replies, “I now describe the entire process as a ‘liquid jigsaw puzzle.’ When you take a piece out, the water all comes in and fills the space where the piece was. Some of the things in the water get bigger, and some get smaller.”

Lighthouse at Laguna, 1955 (Robert Guidi and Tri-Arts for Contemporary Records), shown in Jeremy Aynsley’s essay “Developing a Language of Vision: Graphic Design in California.”

California Design 1930–1965 continues to sell like French toast. Wendy Kaplan comments, “We co-published the book with MIT Press, and LACMA anticipated that we might sell 1500 copies in our own shop during the exhibition, which was originally scheduled to run for six months. Attendance was incredible from the day the show opened, and we sold 750 copies in the first three weeks. The show’s run has been extended two months — it will close on June 3. The book is currently in its third printing.” The exhibition will travel to Tokyo in 2013, and to Australia and New Zealand thereafter. Kaplan adds, “Having such a wonderful companion book has unquestionably made the show more appealing to additional venues.”

Full-page textile by Vienna-trained Paul Laszlo (1954 or before) is the chapter opener for co-curator Bobbye Tigerman’s essay “Fusing Old and New: Émigré Designers in California.” (The pattern is available on pajamas in the LACMA exhibit shop.)

This spread — one of Hodgson’s personal favorites — showing two dresses designed by Gilbert Adrian is part of Melissa Leventon’s essay “Modernism in Textiles and Fashion.”

Here is an unexpected example of art imitating art imitating art: Kat Miller is a doctoral candidate in Art and Architectural History at the University of Virginia. Earlier this spring, while eating Jello and putting together teaching notes for an undergraduate class, she was inspired by her nearby copy of the exhibition book to add a little graphic flair to the vintage gelatin dessert.

Mellow Jello: The book jacket inspired Kat Miller to try her hand at California Design-style Jello blocks.

Miller elaborates, “For class I had bookmarked several pages in California Design 1930–1965 to help students understand how a variety of media can work together to tell a narrative in an exhibition format. I glanced at the cover, and the next thing I knew, I was making retro Jello blocks and blasting the Beach Boys.” We must say that Miller has earned her stripes!

Cedric Gibbons, designer, and George M. Stanley, sculptor, Academy Award of Merit statuette, 1927-28, shown in Christopher Long’s essay “The Rise of California Modern Design, 1930-1941.” Long notes,”Cedric Gibbons won this award for his art direction of The Bridge of San Luis Rey [1929].”

The exhibition’s corporate sponsor is Mattel’s Barbie brand. Barbie #1, in her knit black-and-white striped bathing suit, makes a Corporate Statement between the book’s foreword and introduction. I’d like to think she shares my delight in discovering that the book’s end matter is printed on uncoated pink paper.

Except as noted, all photos of the book © 2012 StudioAlex. Except as noted, all object photos © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA.

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