Some of us (all of us) in Los Angeles who take deep, sometimes guilty, pleasure in the domestic sphere of the material world, have looked forward to LACMA’s main Pacific Standard Time exhibition with real excitement. In a way, and for whatever reasons still not entirely clear to me, my anticipation was vaguely more urgent (i.e. rooted in desire, internal) than usual, while also being less externally contrived, less informed by my own professional considerations and duties. It is strange how separate design feels, by and large, from the contemporary art world and not at all strange that this very disjunction mobilizes the desire roused by the promise of “the first major study of modern California design.” In imagining the show, I was looking forward to spending less time reading wall labels or keeping track of dates and names, and more time being inspired by functional objects that take practical action in my everyday life. One hardly needs the death of Steve Jobs to be reminded that applied design (much more than "art") can be a phenomenally direct and effective force changing the way people think and live on a societal, global, and historic scale.
It was decided that I was going to love “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.” And yet, despite containing many points of interest and more than a few memorable moments of wonder, the survey ultimately underwhelmed my high hopes.
Organized by LACMA’s Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman, the exhibition does an excellent job clarifying the various definitive factors that made up the historical context in which mid-century California design materialized: waves of European, intellectual émigrés reacting to and capitalizing on the region’s landscape, climate and prosperity; tremendous population booms and their attendant housing demands; wartime industries and the new materials (fiberglass, molded plywood, synthetic resins, wire mesh) and technologies they innovated; and post-war economic growth that catalyzed consumption while injecting it with an optimism bounding towards the future. One of the exhibition’s most impressive visualizations of such massive changes in the Southland juxtaposes two aerial photographs of the Wilshire-Fairfax area of Los Angeles, the first from 1922 is utterly barren while the second, a mere eight years later, is totally saturated with gridded sprawl.
Perhaps what is most powerfully attractive about that era today—in the midst of reactionary Republican obstructionism, monstrous wealth disparities, and the 99%-ers occupying Wall Street—is that mid-century California represents, above all, a now vanished, golden age of the American middle-class. That is something worth being nostalgic about because design should have an intentional vision that grows out of humanistic and democratic ideals that commit to a progressive politic. That is something worth yearning for because design should have a utopian sense of purpose and philosophical as well as material integrity.
Design is made to illustrate a sociological and historical narrative here perhaps even more than it is presented on aesthetic terms. And yet, the organization of the survey into four thematic sections—Shaping, Making, Living, and Selling California Modern—was ineffective despite being loudly proclaimed at the outset. The show’s installation design (by Hodgetts + Fung studio) ended up, for better and worse, dominating one’s experience of the work. The large, open floorplan of the museum’s Resnick Pavilion was scripted into a loop of display cases and platforms wrapping around a central, curving spine of bare metal beams extending toward the ceiling. The exposed materials and unadorned surfaces of the installation evocatively convey the utilitarian enthusiasm and retro-futurism of mid-century world fairs and technology expos. (The exhibition and its installation did heighten my appreciation for Renzo Piano’s recent additions to LACMA, whose I-beams, flat-top covered arcades, long, low horizons, and brightness resonate so well with the region’s design tradition.) The objects themselves sometimes felt overshadowed, diminished. For as many things as there are on display, I felt like so little was shown. I wanted to see fifty chairs where there are not even fifteen. Maybe this is a good problem to have—leave me wanting more—but it made me question some of the selections.
Still, there are many awesome and weird things to see: Opco Company’s 1935 Ice Gun that produces crushed ice with the pull of a Space Age trigger; La Gardo Tackett’s modular, white earthenware garden sculptures, c.1955; a shiny chrome Airstream Clipper armored like an armadillo; several Eames chairs and shelving units in addition to a recreation of the couple’s Pacific Palisades living room; Greta Magnusson Grossman’s brilliant Floor Lamp and Screen, both circa 1952, the latter suspending spheres on wires like an atomic or astronomic model; a 1961 Avanti Studebaker designed by Richard Loewy; architectural drawings by Craig Ellwood, Richard Neutra, and Raphael Soriano and others; and a Milo Baughman cocktail table with a built-in planter. A wall of Julius Shulman photographs of California modern residences (most notably ones by A. Quincy Jones) may be the highlight because they show design holistically experienced as the medium for modern living. We see the calculated engineering and even propagandizing of modern living, in what often looks like stiff or staged poses: the nuclear family unit lounges on their covered patio with built-in seating, the handsome couple cuts a striking figure against the stark lines of their living room, the tidy wife prepares the dinner in a most modern kitchen while the kids play outside. These scenes evocatively play on our desire, on a romance with a past moment of optimism and possibility and socio-aesthetic innovation. For that reason, season two of Mad Men (especially “The Jet Set” episode set in Palm Springs) ultimately does so much more in recent years to quicken the pulse and capture the glamour, sharpness, intelligence, restraint, boldness, and sexiness of California mid-century design than everything in this exhibition combined.
—Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, an artist, writer and curator living in Los Angeles.
(Image: JULIUS SHULMAN, Pierre Koenig, architect, Stahl House (Case Study House #22), Los Angeles, 1960, printed later, Gelatin-silver print © LACMA, Gift in honor of Robert Sobieszek, M.2005.191.)