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California dreaming

Modern life in the Golden State

The population of California has grown from seven million in 1940 to 38 million today, making it the most populous of the United States. Boosters have extolled its benign climate, natural beauty and economic opportunities, but the vision has soured. A major exhibition, California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way restores your confidence in the potential of the Golden State.

The exhibition is a fusion of high and low culture, celebrating the optimism and belief in progress that carried people through the Great Depression, the Second World War and its troubled aftermath. The show demonstrates how − in contrast to Philip Johnson’s appropriation of the International Style − California design grew organically out of a ‘preference for living in a modern way’.

The quote is from Greta Magnusson Grossman, a Swedish designer who joined a stream of creative European talent migrating to LA on the eve of war. Some found employment in Hollywood, others like Thomas Mann and Arnold Schoenberg retreated into a private world, but there was no language barrier for architects and designers and they seized their chances. Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and Kem Weber (who later designed the Walt Disney Studios and the Airline Chair) came early and laid a solid foundation.

The Hungarian Paul László reputedly acquired a car, an apartment and a membership to the Beverly Hills Tennis Club on his first day in LA, before establishing himself as an architect to the stars and designing Atomville, an underground city of 1950 where a lucky few might enjoy a carefree existence even as nuclear bombs burst overhead.

The stand-out exhibit was created by Ray Eames, a California native. The Eames House that Charles built in 1949 is being restored, and Ray’s artfully composed collection of furniture, rugs and potted plants (plus a tumbleweed acquired on a trip to the desert and a hundred other objects) has been re-assembled at the museum, framed by a skeleton of the Eames House.

The result of the American equivalent of Sir John Soane Museum’s in London: a cluttered portrait of eclectic tastes and skills. Eames furniture and other familiar works are scattered throughout, but curators Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman have presented all 350 of the exhibits in a novel way, juxtaposing album covers and Barbie’s dream house, an Airstream trailer and Raymond Loewy’s Studebaker Avanti, ceramics and textiles, graphics and jewellery.

Even the swimsuits that resemble abbreviated suits of armour have something to contribute to this holistic portrait of an era. Sketches and classic Julius Shulman images reveal the architecture that framed these objects and the hedonistic lifestyle that they embodied. As Kaplan observes, ‘Fluidity, openness, experimentation, the abolition of boundaries: the same qualities that characterised the modern California home equally applied to the modern California designer.’

A brilliant installation by Hodgetts + Fung, a firm greatly inspired by the Eameses, enhances the impact of the exhibition. They have exploited the soaring sky-lit volume of Renzo Piano’s Resnick Gallery to great effect, framing exhibits with curvilinear aluminum frames that evoke aeroplane construction and have been digitally fabricated. Biomorphic islands of white gravel set off the larger exhibits. All that is missing is the music; cool jazz would have added another dimension.

The exhibition was sponsored in part by the Getty Foundation as an element of Pacific Standard Time, their ambitious initiative of funding mid-20th-century exhibitions in 60 southern Californian cultural institutions. Reason enough to fly to LA, but if you cannot get there before the end of March, there is a handsome illustrated catalogue for the exhibition, which you could pre-order on Amazon for a fraction of the cost of an air ticket.

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