Design: Mid-century design still fresh today

By Terry Lobb

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A Charles and Ray Eames storage unit, circa 1949.
A Charles and Ray Eames storage unit, circa 1949.

I thought I would follow on from last week and talk about the exhibition California Design 1930-1965, which I saw at the Auckland Art Gallery.

I love mid-century modernist design and if I was ever going to build, I would definitely consider this style of home - the open-plan living, clean lines, natural finishes, large windows ... simplicity.

But this exhibition wasn't just about houses - it was an exciting fusion of all design of that time and the influences that made this unique period.

We saw house design, furniture, record covers, crockery, fabrics, lighting and clothing, so you can imagine how Gaye (my good friend and colleague from Auckland) felt - we were like kids in a candy store.

Californian design grew from the depression and war being over and a need for change. The war had brought materials and production methods that could be used in peacetime and, because of the population boom, there was a need for new housing.

Lifestyles had become relaxed and informal and mainly outdoors due to the climate, and there was a demand for "contemporary" furnishings to suit this change in lifestyle.

Hence the California look was born - avant-garde was strong on the US west coast and Asian and Mexican influences permeated the scene.

Main players in this change were Henry Dreyfuss, an industrial designer, R. M. Schindler and Richard Neutra, who had migrated from Europe, Charles and Ray Eames (we have all seen the famous Eames chair), Sam Maloof, Rudi Gernreich and Edith Heath.

Southern California is the home of Mattel Inc, developed in a garage workshop by Ruth and Elliot Handler and Harold Matson.

They were the creators of Barbie and are still the leaders in the design, manufacture and marketing of family products and toys worldwide, and the exhibition features a great collection of toys and especially Barbie and Ken dolls. Barbie is still the world's most popular doll worldwide.

Designs were sharp and well-crafted, with much of the furniture formed in beautiful curves of ply. Bamboo, solid timber, leather, chrome and inlay were also used, and colours were often blocked with a strong use of orange, yellow, red, blue and green.

More subtle muted colours of pink and orange and aqua were also prominent, and images were stylised on record covers, posters billboards and magazines.

Fabrics were often stylised or strongly geometric, simple in colour and texture.

Clothing designs were relaxed and fun to suit the lifestyle but there was still an array of close-fitting tailored jackets and skirts or dresses for other occasions.

Nipped-in waists and fuller skirts dominated the latter period, and beachwear was dominant for both men and women as the glamour of movies reigned throughout this time.

On looking through the exhibition it was interesting to see that some of the kitchen designs being featured as new and innovative are still being used today - and still being hailed as new and innovative. The basic concept is the same but the mechanisms will be more upmarket 60-odd years on.

I loved the exhibition and came away with my mind reeling and full of wanting more. We are so lucky to have an extensive exhibition of this calibre in New Zealand.

If you have any questions about issues discussed or product supply give me a call on 0276023298 or drop me a line on target='_blank'>terry@terrylobb.com

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