California Design, 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way” at LACMA

California Design, 1930-1965: "Living in a Modern Way"

Yesterday, I attended Press Day for LACMA’s new show, California Design, 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way.” With the intent of studying and showcasing the Golden State’s huge role in mid-century modern design, it features over 350 objects that range from textiles to furniture and stationery to toys. Yes, the Eameses, Neutra, Schindler, Magnusson Grossman, and other stars of the movement are present–and how–but the show isn’t merely a greatest-hits collection. Dividing the exhibition into sections of Shaping, Making, Living, and Selling, curators Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman provide a balanced look at influences and influencers. In addition to the availability of new materials (molded plywood, plastic, fiberglass), technologies (aerospace, nuclear energy), and possibilities (travel, surfing), they stress the access and acceptance of ideas from Latin America and Asia.

Ruth Asawa's steel wire sculpture, La Gardo Tackett's achitectural pottery at LACMA

From a Giant Robot point of view, mid-century was the moment when Pan Asian and Asian-American creators and cultures first made a dent in mainstream cool. It makes perfect sense when you see something like Ruth Asawa’s S.250 made out of steel wire across the way from La Gardo Tackett’s architectural pottery. Vaguely ethnic shapes and aesthetics are re-imagined in a modern way, cleaned-up but not necessarily sanitized. Teapots, textiles, folding screens, and many other pieces with similar multicultural lineage are scattered around the floor.

Space travel and open roads at LACMA.

With today’s traffic jams and unemployment, it’s easy to forget that California once symbolized fresh starts and wide horizons. The local, then-booming aerospace industry and California-obsessed auto industry (or was that the other way around?) merged in Studebaker’s Avanti. This particular model is on loan from Dick Van Dyke. Neutra’s Channel Heights Chair also has a cosmic theme, but grounds it with materials found on Earth.

Sound systems at LACMA

These stereo furnishings capture the wide-open, expansive feeling favored by mid-century architects, timed perfectly with hi-fi technology evolving and becoming more available to consumers. The fact that the new design was being made available to regular folks on an everyday, everywhere basis recurs in the show. The pictured furniture was mass-produced just as the Barbies, Polaroid camera, and clothing on display were.

Wave Chaise and Lotus Chair at LACMA.

Above, two woven pieces of furniture by Asians in America: Danny Ho Fong’s Wave chaise and Miller Lee Fong’s Lotus chair. Below, the shapes, colors, and energy of surf culture that crossed over into the lives of hodads: Noll, Hobie, Brown.

Surf culture at LACMA

Of course, the crown jewel of California Design is the Eames living room, which has been relocated and recreated piece by piece (give or take a few priceless kachinas) at the furthest end of the exhibit. It brings together all the textiles, furnishings, fashions, and trinkets that populate the show, and the packed bookshelf serves as a virtual index to the countless interests and influences that went into mid-century aesthetics. So do the souvenirs, keepsakes, and decorations that pack the space. This is the stuff that thrift-shop junkies’ dreams are made of.

Eames living room at LAMCA

And for the nerds, there are Eames chairs and bookshelves, too. Not to mention textiles, toys, Barbie furniture… Architectural sketches by Neutra and Schindler. Crafts by Heath and Da Patta. The list goes on and on.

Chairs at LACMA

Members enjoy a preview day tomorrow (Friday, September 30) and doors open to the public on Saturday, October 1. You have until February 12, 2012 to see it. Yes, California has seen better days, but this collection should remind Californians and visitors that we have a legacy of cool design, creative energy, open minds, and evolving culture. A pretty rad museum, too. Thanks to Christine and LACMA for letting me be one of the show’s first visitors.

Eames chairs on Press Day at LACMA