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PEM presents California Design, 1930 – 1965: Living in a Modern Way

Posted by  February 4, 2014 10:00 AM

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The following was submitted by the Peaboyd Essex Museum: 

The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) presents California Design, 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way, an exhibition of more than 250 mid-century modern design objects. A diverse array of works including furniture, textiles, fashion, classic vehicles and much more celebrates the impact of California designers between 1930 to 1965. 

The output of legendary designers Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler, along with previously unheralded figures, is contextualized within the creative climate of California and the social and cultural conditions of the time. Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), this exhibition is the first major study of modern California design. PEM’s presentation is the exhibition’s only East Coast venue — on view from March 29 to July 6, 2014.

California Design shows how California became mid-century America’s most important source of progressive architecture and furnishings and explores the state’s influence on the nation’s material culture. Four thematic sections — Shaping, Making, Living and Selling — tell the origins of modern California design, its materials and makers, and the dissemination of a California look and modern lifestyle worldwide.

The influx of millions of new residents to California during the economic boom of the 1920s ignited a demand for modern housing and furnishings that significantly increased during and immediately following World War II. America’s postwar prosperity afforded a new consumer class opportunities to furnish and decorate their homes with goods made by the state’s designers and craftspeople. 

“The goal was to provide well-designed, accessible and affordable modern homes and furnishings to millions of Californians and those around the country who craved them,” said Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art, formerly of LACMA. “The designers who embraced California modern ideals wanted to make everyday life beautiful and comfortable. They responded to California’s environment and pioneered new ways to meld craft production with industrial manufacturing.”

Working with a spirit of modernism and experimentation, California designers adopted new materials and production methods leading to innovations in form and function for objects and architecture. A tremendous synergy arose between local designers and émigrés who brought European modernism and advanced professional training in art, architecture, craft and design to the Golden State. Opportunities created by housing and population booms, as well as the burgeoning motion picture industry, propelled this culture of innovation and experimentation. The phenomenon only accelerated when California took the lead in aerospace and defense manufacturing during World War II. 

Creative peacetime applications of wartime technologies and materials such as plywood, fiberglass and steel furthered  exploration. Charles and Ray Eames epitomized the ingenuity of California designers by creating molded plywood furniture and toys using techniques developed during World War II to make lightweight leg splints for wounded soldiers.

In 1951, émigré designer Greta Magnusson Grossman declared, 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 distinctive vocabulary of the California house and its furnishings at mid-century emerged from a response to the temperate climate that permitted indoor-outdoor living. 

New construction techniques and domestic applications for materials enabled architects to re-envision the open-plan home and collapse traditional boundaries between indoor and outdoor environments. New uses for steel, for example, allowed walls to open for floor-to-ceiling windows and doors, diminishing the boundaries between the outdoor environment and domestic interiors.

California has meant sunshine and the next perfect wave on the horizon for generations, and California designers provided new ways to enjoy them. Developments in fiberglass technology transformed the ubiquitous surfboard and made possible the sleek, sculptural profiles of mid-century automobiles.  In the exhibition, a 1964 Studebaker Avanti with its fiberglass body and futuristic grille-less nose exemplifies American automotive exuberance. The material culture produced in California became a gleaming, larger-than-life reflection of the entire country, and can be seen in the objects presented in California Design — from the comfortable, mobile existence offered by a 1930s aluminum Airstream Clipper trailer to the 1959 Barbie doll typifying California beach culture and the sophisticated glamour of Hollywood film stars.

By the end of the 1960s, the relentless optimism that made California the embodiment of the good life became far more subdued. Counterculture protests and ecological and social justice issues challenged the very idea of consumerism and unbridled growth. These shifting beliefs, however, did not diminish the lasting contributions of California design at mid-century. California Design tells a story of the exhilarating innovation and enthusiasm for building a better, brighter and more modern world.

The accompanying 360-page catalogue, edited by Wendy Kaplan, is co-published by LACMA and MIT Press, and features essays by Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman, along with other leading architecture and design historians.

The exhibition’s second publication, A Handbook of California Design, 1930-1965: Craftspeople, Designers, Manufacturers, edited by Bobbye Tigerman, documents the lives and work of more than 140 significant mid-twentieth century figures in California design and was created by the internationally renowned graphic designer Irma Boom.

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