The golden age of design

By Adam Gifford

Californian dreams incite themes in an exhibition that epitomises cool, writes Adam Gifford

Elephant, 1945, by Charles Eames (1907-78) and Ray Eames (1912-88).
Elephant, 1945, by Charles Eames (1907-78) and Ray Eames (1912-88).

Among the items in the California Design show at Auckland Art Gallery is an early Oscar statuette. The golden figure, designed by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, is familiar from the movie industry but it's also an example of the style developed in the Golden State.

The show was put together four years ago and became one of 50 shows funded by the Getty Institute celebrating southern Californian culture - although it also covers the rest of the state.

"There's a famous quote [from historian Wallace Stegner]: 'California is America but only more so,"' says assistant curator Staci Steinberger who has come out with the show from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"It was seen as the engine of innovation during this period from 1930 to 1965. There were population booms with people flooding in. It had everything going for it, from the weather to the sense this was a place with energy and opportunity. It had a sense of openness - more than New York and the east coast," she says.

"There was Hollywood but there was also a lot of manufacturing - aerospace around Los Angeles, shipbuilding in the Bay Area, a lot of technology development and by the end of the period we start to have the computer industry. The population influx meant people needed new homes and furnishings. New industries mean lots of well-paid jobs.

"That's why this period feels like such a golden age, that people felt that sense of possibility where you could have a blue-collar job and really provide for your family, and I think it's a very different feeling from now. This was a period where people felt that sense of golden opportunity."

Steinberger says while modernist design may not have been a majority choice for housing or furniture, there was a sense that the California lifestyle would be more informal.

"As opposed to European modernism, Californian modernism was really rooted in the place and the climate, the inside-outside living and the emphasis in Los Angeles in particular on the single family home, having your own house and your own yard," she says.

The show is built around four themes - shaping, which looks at the design influences from the 1930s; making, which looks at the post-war economic engine and production; living, which looks at lifestyle; and selling, which looks at the dissemination of the style.

A number of teachers and institutions are critical, including Art Centre School in Los Angeles, which is now Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena.

That's where inspiring teachers such as Alvin Lustig trained people in both practical and industrial design. "Lustig had a broad sense of design and its possibilities. He was a polymath, he designed everything from graphic design and textiles to architecture and helicopters."

One of the exhibition's finds, from a former student, was a set of notecards that Lustig had his class design using typewriters to generate the typography. They are contrasted with the book covers for the New Classics reprint series that Lustig did for publisher New Directions, showing an approach to typography and design that credited the reader with some sophistication.

Over at the University of Southern California, ceramicist Glen Lukens showed how handcrafts could work in the service of machine-made goods. "One of Lukens' most famous students was Frank Gehry, who he helped get into architecture."

Their classes became filled with students returning from war and studying on the GI Bill. The state also drew in architects, refugees from Nazi persecution - some of them Bauhaus-trained - and craftspeople from the Midwest who wanted a milder winter.

"John Kapel was working as a furniture designer in Michigan, where the manufacturing was, and he saw an article in Life magazine about another designer, Sam Malouf, pictured in his orange grove by his workshop in southern California. He thought, 'that's the life I want' and moved, settling in northern California.

"Interestingly, he continued to do hand-crafted work alongside his production work."

Steinberger says California was also open to influences from Latin America and the Pacific Rim.

"We did look for designers and craftspeople who were themselves from Mexico and from Asia, and you see some but it was a different time and more restrictive, and in World War II there was persecution of Japanese-Americans, but we do have some people."

The idea of democratic design was about, with designer Charles Eames talking about making "the best for the most for the least".

One exhibit is a plywood splint Charles and Ray Eames made for the army during the war. The technology advances from that project can be seen feeding into later furniture and to the plywood elephant they designed for Evans Products Company in 1945.

California Design was Steinberger's introduction to California, and her first job since graduating from university in Pittsburgh. Working as an assistant to curators Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman was a great way to learn about the culture of the place she had moved to - and because it covers the mid-century period, many of the people or their students and assistants are still around.

"The pleasure is that a number of the movers and shakers are still around, so that was a real highlight of the research."

Although a few of the designs showed up in Hollywood films such as Executive Suite, more influential were magazines like Arts & Architecture and the catalogues put together by the Pasadena Arts Museum, which chronicled the movement in a major series of exhibitions from the early-1950s to the late-60s.

"Designers talk about going abroad and having people recognise their work from Arts & Architecture or Sunset magazine," Steinberger says. "Photographer Julius Schulman made staged glamorous shots of what California life was about that were hugely influential. We've included a issue of Life with his work."

The State Department, always keen to promote the good life in the US, also helped with exhibitions.

Surfboards, books and record sleeves from labels like World Pacific also projected a cool image. Other treasures include the world's first Barbie doll, classic Levi Strauss & Co clothing, textile designs by Paul Laszlo and Bernard Kester, ceramics by Gertrud and Otto Natzler, Edith Heath and Beatrice Wood, and graphics by Saul Bass, Alvin Lustig and Charles Kratka.

Exhibition

What: California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way
Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery, opens today, to September 29
Public events: See aucklandartgallery.com

- NZ Herald

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