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LACMA presents first major exhibition of mid-century Modern California design
Gertrud and Otto Natzler, Bowl, 1943. Earthenware, 3 1/2 x 8 1/2. Gift of Rose A. Sperry 1972 Revocable Trust ©2007 Gail Reynolds Natzler, Trustee of the Natzler Trust Photo ©2011 Museum Associates/LACMA.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Los Angeles County Museum of Art presents California Design, 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way.” The exhibition—the first major study of modern California design—examines the state’s key role in shaping the material culture of the country at mid-century. California Design features more than 350 objects in wideranging media, including furniture, textiles, fashion, graphic and industrial design, ceramics, jewelry, metalwork, architectural drawings, and film, as well as two period re-creations—most notably the living room from the home of renowned designers Charles and Ray Eames. The exhibition is organized by Wendy Kaplan, Curator and Department Head, and Bobbye Tigerman, Assistant Curator, of LACMA’s Decorative Arts and Design Department.

“Given that California became a world center for design innovation after 1945, it’s surprising that this exhibition is the first comprehensive study of the subject. While figures such as the Eameses, Richard Neutra and Rudi Gernreich are well known, we present new context for their work,” stated Wendy Kaplan. Bobbye Tigerman elaborated, “At the same time, we also introduce audiences to previously unheralded designers who played an integral role in the development of California design.”

California Design, 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way” is one of five exhibitions LACMA is presenting in conjunction with Pacific Standard Time, an unprecedented collaboration initiated by the Getty, bringing together more than sixty cultural institutions across Southern California to tell the story of the birth of the Los Angeles art scene (beginning October 2011).

“California is America, only more so,” the author Wallace Stegner famously declared in 1959. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the state symbolized the good life in America. After 1945 a burgeoning, newly prosperous population—intoxicated by the power to purchase after the deprivation years of the Great Depression and the wartime rationing of goods—turned the state into America’s most important center for progressive architecture and furnishings. This exhibition explores how the California of our collective imagination—a democratic utopia where a benign climate permitted life to be led informally and largely outdoors— was translated into a material culture that defined an era.

To illustrate how California provided the ideal environment for modernism to flourish in a way particular to the state, the exhibition is divided into four sections: “Shaping,” “Making,” “Living,” and “Selling.” As émigré Greta Magnusson Grossman declared in 1951, 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.”

Shaping California Modern
In the 1920s boom economy, California experienced extraordinary population growth. Millions of new residents needed homes and furnishings, and in the 1930s, buildings and their contents started to be made in modern ways and in modern styles.

The exhibition examines the role of native designers and transplants from other parts of the country as well as the contributions of European émigrés such as Kem Weber, R. M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, and later, in the 1930s, those fleeing Nazi persecution. By the onset of World War II, these innovators’ designs for homes and furnishings were characterized by a particular kind of modernism, one rooted in California culture and conditions. The general qualities associated with the state (optimism and democracy, fearless experimentation, and a love of new technology) and those specific to design (an affinity for light and brilliant color, openness to Asian and Latin influences, and an advocacy of fluid spaces and cross-disciplinary approaches) made California’s best products distinctive.

Making California Modern
After 1945, the United States became the world’s strongest industrial, military, and cultural power. California played a key role in this development, having dominated defense and aerospace production during World War II. After the war, this escalated production had a galvanizing effect on the design and manufacture of consumer goods in the state. California’s material culture was shaped by the imperative to apply innovative wartime materials and production methods to peacetime use. For example, Charles and Ray Eames began working with molded plywood to make leg splints for the Navy about 1943, and produced their now-iconic furniture made with this material a few years later.

California artists working in traditional craft media also responded to the spirit of modernism and experimentation. These “designer-craftsmen,” as they became known—including Edith Heath, David Cressey, Sam Maloof, and Margaret De Patta—tried to adapt new methods of production to make their work more accessible to the new middle classes. Whether handmade or industrially produced, the goal was to provide well-designed homes and furnishings for the millions of newcomers to California who craved them.

Living California Modern
The heart of the exhibition focuses on the modern California home, famously characterized by open plans and furnished with products from companies such as Van Keppel-Green and Architectural Pottery. The distinctive vocabulary of the California house and its furnishings at mid-century emerged from a response to the benevolent climate, which permitted indoor/outdoor living. Coupled with new construction techniques and domestic applications for materials such as steel, this allowed space to be made more permeable by completely freeing the wall. The use of steel enabled windows to be floor-to-ceiling; the size of these glass panels was made possible by new technology developed during World War II.

California Design features an extraordinary demonstration of “living in a modern way” with a unique re-creation of the living room from Charles and Ray Eames’ Case Study House #8, part of Arts and Architecture magazine’s groundbreaking post-war program to build high-quality, affordable, massproducible homes. The installation of these furnishings offers an unprecedented look at the rich, eclectic interior in which these legendary designers lived, showcasing several hundred objects on loan from the Eames Foundation.

Selling California Modern
Julius Shulman declared, “Good design is seldom accepted. It has to be sold.” He was referring to his own role in staging architectural photography, but as this section demonstrates, the statement could be equally applied to exhibitions, stores, advertising, publications, and film, which were the principal agents in disseminating modern California design.

“What Makes the California Look” was a question so pressing it was the cover story of the Los Angeles Times “Home” magazine in October 1951. Many of the objects photographed for the cover—an Eames fiberglass chair, an Architectural Pottery planter, a Van Keppel-Green lounge chair—have become emblems of California design, endlessly seen in photographs of the period. The works from the LA Times cover (or nearly identical examples) have been located and reassembled to recreate the original photo shoot for the exhibition, demonstrating how selling California’s products could not be separated from selling the idea of California itself.

By the end of the 1960s, the relentless optimism that had 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, do not diminish the unprecedented and lasting contributions of California design at mid-century. This exhibition tells a story of the exhilarating innovation and optimism about building a better, modern world that made California loom large in America’s, and indeed the world’s, imagination.

Installation Design
The installation for California Design is created by the design and architecture studio Hodgetts + Fung, which is also responsible for a number of Los Angeles landmarks, including the renovated Hollywood Bowl and Egyptian Theater. The design for the exhibition is inspired by California’s unique style, with lithe, sensuous lines carried throughout the installation, including the display cases and a helical construction that soars through the center of the space. Hodgetts + Fung also collaborated with curators Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman to bring the re-creation of the Eames living room to life.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Modern California design | Living in a Modern Way |  |

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