Living and Selling the Dream: Exploring Lifestyle Aspirations through California Design

by Yule Heibel on April 4, 2014

Here’s my review of the exhibition California Design, to be published in Art*Throb next week (where it will be illustrated with a Julius Shulman photo of The Stahl House, but I don’t dare wade into those copyright waters here, so I’ll leave you with a link, below, to the photo in question…):

Just a few steps into the Peabody Essex Museum’s newest exhibition, California Design 1930-1965, we see two black-and-white aerial photos of a Los Angeles intersection. The location is identical: Wiltshire and Fairfax Boulevards, taken just eight years apart. But a cosmos separates the two pictures. In the first, from 1922, we see the two boulevards laid out, an airstrip, some hints of infrastructure, evidence of oil fields. In the second, from 1930, the entire view has been filled in with more roads and an explosion of houses, seemingly endless clusters of residential development, visual proof of California’s booming economy.

The second photograph neatly illustrates why the exhibition should start with 1930, for California (sunny SoCal especially) became ground zero for a population and housing boom, for Americans escaping the Great Depression, for European émigrés escaping Nazi terror, and for modern industries and their technologies readying a deep and lasting imprint on American – and global – culture.

During the thirty-five years between 1930 and the exhibition’s endpoint, 1965, a remarkable efflorescence of design adapted to California’s edenic climate emerged. Divided into four chapters, Shaping, Making, Living, and Selling, the exhibition presents over 250 examples of Californian Mid-Twentieth Century Modern design, most of which focuses on the home, its furnishings, and its inhabitants. Although California design is thoroughly informed by leading edge technologies (Hollywood film, as well as advanced wartime materials research and development), its impact was on lifestyle. And for those who couldn’t actually afford it, on aspirational lifestyle.

Thus we see examples of residential architecture using new technologies that enable floor to ceiling windows, steel framing, and plastic components (skylights, for example), which in turn allow architects to advance a new “indoor-outdoor” lifestyle attitude. Living rooms open up to patios that open onto swimming pools that reflect the big sky and desert beyond. Especially noteworthy in this regard is the 1948 Donnell Ranch, where Thomas Dolliver Church designed the first kidney-shaped swimming pool in response to specific site requirements as well as the client’s appreciation of abstract art. New materials allow furniture to move more easily from outdoor to indoor and back again. Architectural pottery and planters by La Gardo Tackett exist happily outside, or move inside to function as sculpture.

These ideals are vividly illustrated by the exhibition’s Case Study Houses, a programmatic approach to residential architecture sponsored by Arts and Architecture Magazine in its January 1945 issue. While the housing boom that occurred after World War II also had a more affordable “homes for heroes” impetus, the Case Study Houses could be rather grand – in a stripped-down, minimalist mid-century way. Case Study House #22 (also known as The Stahl House), illustrated in the exhibition by Julius Shulman’s iconic photograph, shows just how luxe new California design could be: dramatic floor-to-ceiling glass walls on three sides and steel under-girding allow the house to be cantilevered dramatically over what looks like a cliff that, quite literally at one’s feet, gives way to Los Angeles far below.

In a less dramatic but perhaps more far-reaching way, other material innovations made California design accessible (and affordable) to the masses. Take molded plywood, for example. Initially explored prior to the end of WWII by Charles and Ray Eames as a material for furniture, it wasn’t a feasibly affordable mass-consumer product until the US Navy agreed to explore the process for the manufacture leg splints (designed by Eames) for wounded servicemen. Mass production techniques developed under the military in turn translated to furniture production – and the molded plywood chair remains in production to this day. By the same token, plastic and fiberglass, materials used by the military, translated into consumer goods, notably fiberglass surf boards, which in turn made the aspirational lifestyle embodied by the California surfer dude (and dudette) into a very real and affordable consumer item.

While the influence of German and Austrian design thinking is evident in much of California Modern’s stripped down, streamlined lack of ornamentation (recall Adolf Loos, a major influence on Bauhaus philosophy, who – in reaction against his own 19th century inheritance of over-decoration, clutter, and tacked-on building façades – famously decreed that “ornament is crime”), California designers, whether American-born or fugitives from war-torn Europe, allowed for a much softer, organic look. Gone were the often rigid geometries and the pure primary colors of European modern design, instead replaced by an emphasis on organic, undulating shapes as well as the pastel colors that only California’s endless sun could mix.

California design was populist by necessity (all those new, freshly prosperous consumers needed houses, needed furniture, needed clothing, cars, and recreational outlets), but it was also terribly glamorous. As Virginia Postrel writes in her book, The Power of Glamour, glamour is “a form of nonverbal rhetoric, which moves and persuades not through words but through images, concepts, and totems. …By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure, even as it heightens our yearning. It leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.” It is, in other words, eminently suited to conveying the aspirational lifestyle choices of millions, whether Californian or not.

How fitting, then, that when you enter the Peabody Essex Museum, you’ll see on your immediate left a brilliantly glamorous 1964 turquoise fiberglass Avanti sports car, parked in the atrium for the duration of the California Design exhibition. Or when moving further into the museum’s atrium, you’ll encounter Foo, a glamorous 1936 aluminum Airstream camper-trailer (“an airplane without wings” born of innovations in the aircraft industry) that captures the aspirations of a “just pick up and go” freedom. Finally, when you leave the exhibition itself, you’ll pass through the last chapter, fittingly centered on Selling.

Without the concerted effort to disseminate (that is, sell) the aspirational lifestyle embodied by California design, would it have remained a niche glamour product? It’s something we can’t answer since Hollywood movies ensured from the beginning that glamorous styles went not just around the country, but around the world. And by the time the Cold War was in full swing, the power of California design, the enticing way it could beckon millions to aspire to just such a lifestyle, proved useful in the US government’s propaganda tool kit. International traveling exhibitions demonstrated, as the show’s curator Wendy Kaplan put it, “how fabulous it was to be capitalist and how fabulous it was to be American.” The first such international exhibition was in 1959. By 1964, the US was in full cultural superiority throttle when American Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg took First Prize at the Venice Biennale.

Pop Art is beyond the purview of the California Design exhibition, although toward its end the show leaves the viewer to ponder Robert Arneson’s Dadaistic but also prototypical Pop Art ceramic, No Deposit No Return (1961), a “vase” that’s not a vase. It has no function, it’s sealed at both ends, and it even uses words to proclaim its anti-functional status. Nearby we also see Sister Corita Kent’s yellow submarine (1967), which uses the Beatles’s famous song lyrics to create an iconic “Make Love, Not War” poster. Arneson’s piece signals the end of an era in which designers were happy to work together with industry, to work toward making mass-produced objects accessible to ever-larger numbers of consumers. Now, however, the designer-craftsman, formerly compliant with consumer culture, instead morphs into the fine artist who creates non-functional, and often anti-establishment, work.

The Sixties put the kibosh on many California aspirations in other ways, too. For one thing, it’s clear that California Modern is deeply suburban, a car-culture designed for the many who would live in tidy bungalows neatly arrayed in the SoCal desert, with easy highway access to the beach. But the suburbs didn’t continue to satisfy the kids coming of age: they congregated in messier cities, whether Berkeley, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, or points East. Former Steely Dan founder Donald Fagan put it well in his quasi-autobiographical album, The Nightfly. His song The New Frontier captures the mood – that moment of shifting from the suburban cocoon to a bigger world. Describing a party at the parental bungalow (complete with “a dugout that my dad built, In case the Reds decide to push the button down”), the hero is looking for the right embodiment (a girl, naturally) of The New Frontier:

Introduce me to that big blonde
She’s got a touch of Tuesday Weld
She’s wearing Ambush and a French twist
She’s got us wild and she can tell
She loves to limbo, that much is clear
She’s got the right dynamic for the New Frontier.

It all sounds great, except for the chorus: “Well, I can’t wait till I move to the city, Till I finally make up my mind, To learn design and study overseas…”

Escape from Suburban Nation already lurks at the back of the coming generation’s mind, a generation perhaps ironically primed by the sheer magnitude of wealth embodied by California design to take its aspirational birthright to the next “Me Decade” level.

California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way is on view now through July 6, 2014 at the Peabody Essex Museum. Originally conceived and exhibited at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), the exhibition has toured Tokyo, Auckland, and Brisbane. It concludes at the Peabody Essex Museum, its only North American venue outside of L.A.

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