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Seeing Things: ‘California Design, 1930-1965′

“California Design, 1930-1965: Living In A Modern Way,” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through March 25, 2012, is a must-see. Even though the Golden State played a key role in shaping our material culture, the exhibition is, somewhat surprisingly, the first major museum survey of California design. Organized by Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman of the museum’s department of decorative arts and design, this sprawling show features more than 350 objects, including furniture, fashion, film, graphic and industrial design, ceramics, jewelry and architectural drawings and photography.


A masterly exhibition design by the Los Angeles studio Hodgetts + Fung takes visitors on a journey through California in all its midcentury glory. Curvy white display platforms populated with examples of furnishings and objects (by designers both known and less so) snake through the elegant Renzo Piano-designed Resnick Pavilion gallery space, punctuated by vignettes that highlight particular aspects of California living as well as the state’s rich design history.


Modern design flourished in California in the postwar years, and the state staked its claim as the world center for design innovation during the period covered by the exhibition, which as Kaplan explains, “demonstrates how the California of our collective imagination — a democratic utopia where an amazing climate promoted an informal indoor/outdoor lifestyle — was translated into a material culture that defined an era.” Greta Magnusson Grossman, the Austrian designer who immigrated to Los Angeles, declared in 1951 that California design “is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions. … It has developed out of our own preference for living in a modern way.” The exhibition’s four sections — Shaping, Making, Living and Selling — show the ways in which Modernism developed and flourished in California. While many of the seeds of midcentury California Modernism were sown in the years immediately preceding World War II, it was after 1945 that the new aesthetic, rooted in experimentation, optimism and the embrace of new technology, truly blossomed. Designers like Charles and Ray Eames applied innovative wartime materials and production methods to peacetime use, working with molded plywood, fiberglass, wire mesh and synthetic resins. Artists working in traditional craft media, like the potter Edith Heath and the furniture designer Sam Maloof, experimented with novel methods of production to make their work more accessible to the new middle classes who were flocking to the state in droves, lured by its booming postwar economy.


A full-scale re-creation of a section of the Eameses’ Case Study House #8 — their own house in Pacific Palisades — is a showstopper. The Eames Foundation lent hundreds of objects to the exhibition, which gives visitors a rare up-close look into the couple’s airy, open living room. Furnishings of their own design and the eclectic items they collected are displayed just as they were during the Eameses’ lifetimes, providing an extraordinary window into the legendary duo’s world.


From fashion and film title designs to aerodynamic automobile design, California’s innovators had an impact on every aspect of life in the Golden State and beyond. “My parents owned these!” was a comment I heard more than a few times as I made my way through the exhibition. What was most surprising to me, however, was that the majority of designs on view are just as fresh today as they were more than 50 years ago, and that they continue to inspire the way we live in California. If you don’t have a chance to see this remarkable exhibition, the accompanying catalog is certain to be an indispensable resource for design enthusiasts for years to come.


Published by NY Times.

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