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Above: Buff, Straub & Hensman 1955–61 (later Buff, Hensman and Associates) Recreation pavilion, Mirman House, Arcadia 1958 Photo by Julius Shulman, 1959 Getty Research Institute © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute
Just inside the timber veneer and breezeblock entrance to the California Design exhibition at Queensland Art Gallery are two black-and-white aerial photographs taken seven years apart, the first in 1922, the second in 1929. Roads marked in, handwritten in white ink – the intersection of Wilshire and Fairfax Boulevards. The first looks as if a bomb’s gone off, with just a few temporary-looking structures on Fairfax, the odd building on Wilshire and what look like patches of scorched earth.
The second shot demonstrates a different type of explosion – as those tracts of dry land, as far as the eye can see, have been transformed into residential estates, crisscrossed by straight roads, jam-packed with houses.
In a remarkably graphic way, California’s population boom is illustrated; throughout California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, an exhibition of more than 250 objects from Los Angeles County Museum of Art, similarly striking examples are used to economically make a point. Take, for instance, the two plywood chairs designed by Charles Eames. The first, from 1940 and designed with Eero Saarinen, may have won first place in the Organic Design competition but it looks, frankly, reasonably undistinguished. The second, from 1946-49 and designed with his wife, Ray, is DCW, the curvaceously complex dining chair still made today. It would never have happened if the couple had not spent the intervening years working on a moulded plywood splint (on display between the chairs) for the US Navy. Having access to the latest materials, glues and techniques, developed for the war effort, paid off.
And it’s hard to imagine a better way of showing wartime rationing – in this case, of rubber – than with the Swoon Suit, Cole of California’s sexy swimsuit, which has risqué lacing up the sides in place of the hard-to-come-by elastic.
While we may all be familiar with the likes of Eames, Neutra and the Case Study houses – all well represented in this fascinating exhibition – a real revelation is to come across objects and names we may not be aware of. There’s John Kapel, for instance, whose 1958 chair, while strongly Scandinavian in design, also has a touch of the peacock cane chair about it in form. Clearly designed for indoor use, it seems to epitomise the very particular form of residential modernism embraced by California – a modernism that, due to the state’s benign climate, was able to blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor, an ideal good in theory in Europe, but obviously impractical.
Looking around the exhibition, so many of the names are European in origin – the United States has long been the land of the migrant, experiencing a spike with the rise of National Socialism leading up to World War II. Many of those European architects, designers and intellectuals made their way to California, bringing their ideas, philosophies and training to the land of opportunity, experimentation and imagination.
And as ever, the California of the years covered in this exhibition is a land of contrasts – the environment in which the Eames’ objective was to get “the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least” alongside a highly exclusive world of wealth and Hollywood glamour. And so we see examples of mass production – from tableware to houses and fashion – as well as the one-off in houses, ceramics and jewellery; an Esther Williams golden swimsuit against altogether more commonplace beachwear. The contrast is evident, too, in the optimism of the period versus the underlying threat of nuclear war (there’s something darkly hilarious about the board game Boom!).
One particularly good aspect of the exhibition is in its examples of graphic design. It’s used in housing brochures to sell the Californian dream (‘Eichler Homes designed to make your everyday a holiday!’ or ‘Lakewood: The future city as new as tomorrow’). It’s selling lifestyle, too, with the likes of Saul Bass’s vibrant record cover for Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color (appropriated for the cover of the excellent exhibition catalogue) and through the modernist covers of literary novels.
The California dream, which in its most modernist form was only taken up by a tiny percentage of the population, was disseminated internationally at the time through print media, which clamoured to feature aspects of the West Coast lifestyle on its covers, in its pages. It’s no surprise to discover that the first kidney-shaped pool ever (a popular image in the media) was in 1948 for a Thomas Dolliver Church house in Sonoma County.
It’s impossible to imagine the California dream without Hollywood, and along with an early Oscar and various movie posters, there’s a clever compilation of film clips featuring design: spot the Eames chair in 1954’s Executive Suite, the Greta Magnusson-Grossman furniture in 1960’s Strangers When We Meet and so on. The clips throughout the exhibition, usually no more than a couple of minutes long, are uniformly good – a particular highlight was the look inside Dorothy Wright Liebes’ extraordinary textile studio in San Francisco. Altogether, this is an exhibition that willingly transports the visitor to another time and place. And while there, it’s impossible not to ponder how similar and how different they were, and are, from the experience in this part of the world.
California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way runs at Queensland Art Gallery until February 9, 2014