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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And the conversation continued on Facebook…

by Yule Heibel on February 26, 2014

DublinTower…well into the night. (Actually, over the course of a couple of days.)

The conversation I mean is of course the one I started with my Feb. 20th post, Online conversations: some observations.

Here’s a sample of some of what transpired on my Facebook wall in the comments:

  • Yule Heibel A PS of sorts: when I made this FB update yesterday, I was rushing out to an evening event I was getting late for, and my update here was hasty. I should have mentioned the key people who were (still are?) in one way or another the pillars in my blogosphere: There’s Dave Winer, whose introduction of blogging to Harvard’s Berkman Center made it possible for me to start blogging in the first place: thank you! There’s Chris Locke (aka Kat Herding) whose gonzo marketing/philosophy Entropy Gradient Reversal newsletter I somehow got subscribed to, which in turn connected me to so many other great people, including, in no particular order: Frank Paynter, Elaine Frankonis, Tom Matrullo, Betsy Devine, Maria Benet, Mike Golby, David Weinberger, Shelley Powers, Jeneane Sessum, Joseph Duemer, Euan Semple, Dean Landsman,…holy cow, there are no doubt a ton more that I’m not calling to mind right now. Then there were other channels and connections Julie Leung, or Boris Mann and Roland Tanglao, e.g.), Vancouver’s Northern Voice conferences (blogging!), which in turn let me connect to even more people (Stewart Butterfield, Marc Canter, Robert Scoble). All of you have enriched my life and provided food for thought worthy of a university and a village (a university in a village?), and there’s no doubt that social media (even if it’s not “just” blogging any more) built that.

    But it has changed. And what hasn’t changed is that it’s still all about connecting and being heard (or seen). Way back in …oh, was it 2006 or 07?, when Mark Lise and I organized the first Victoria BC Demo Camp, Andrew Wilkinson (who was on Tumblr before any of you even knew it existed, and who’s no mean wordsmith himself even as he deals mostly in pixels for business) asked me why I would bother blogging. It’s so sad, he seemed to suggest, when it’s all just tl;dr and doesn’t even generate connections and feedback. For him, Tumblr is much better. But, yeah, some of us are just wordy and we keep trying to connect the short bits into something long.

    And now, maybe in yet another iteration, long-form writing is back, as you can see via all the platforms springing up around it – Medium, for example. But I don’t want to write on Medium because a) I distrust my abilities now; and b) it’s again a third-party application, one that furthermore asks its users to work for free (may as well do that on my own site) even as it seems to be creating a hierarchy by paying some chosen authors (and I can’t take the ego-bruising of once again being the unpaid peon while others climb a food chain that to me seems to be just a well-greased, slippery pole).

    It’s definitely a complex landscape. And here’s a thought: it’s not just technology that disrupts. Sometimes it’s people who disrupt the reign of technology, too.
  • Dave Winer Let’s do it again Yule. We’ve learned a lot, and we know why we need to keep our independence, even if it’s easier to dump our ideas into Facebook, if they are to have any value, they have to connect to each other in a predictable way, not subject to to the profit-seeking algorithms of Facebook and Twitter, at least some of which involves keeping the governments happy. We had a great thing going ten years ago. I never gave it up, and have been working on new tools for independent writing, all along. I never stopped.
  • Yule Heibel Indeed you didn’t, Dave. I just read the post on Medium by Andy deSoto about your new product, Fargo. Good stuff! (Can Fargo work on mobile/offline so that it can at a later point be uploaded to Scrivener, I wonder?) And I also read that article, which I saw in your and Euan’s stream just now, about how the FB news feed works now (algorithms). Yep, it’s important to *own* one’s words.
  • Dave Winer That’s great that you read Andy DeSoto’s piece. His theory was that more people would see it on Medium. I guess he was right? In any case, if you want an offline outliner, we have one: It stores stuff on your computer using a new HTML feature called “local storage.”

  • Yule Heibel Great, thanks! (Actually, I saw the link to the Medium piece in your FB stream, which I suppose confirms FB’s importance as a feed for info/links. I get Medium’s email updates, too, tho’. Will see if DeSoto’s piece shows up there.)
  • Dave Winer Aha, I would have pointed to his piece here whether it was in Fargo or Medium (and of course I would have preferred he use Fargo).
  • Kat Herding so much truth in what you say, Yule. for one thing, I miss the seriousness of blogging.

    Kat Herding's photo.
  • Kat Herding a bit more um… seriously, I do use Facebook – between the one-liners and funny graphics – as an aid to what I once immodestly referred to as research. while FB has never had any sort of search function worth noting (and this is pretty mind-blowing for a system of its size) it is possible to download all the stuff one has put into it (on one’s own wall/timeline anyway). I do this occasionally so that I can use other grep-ish tools to mine this material on my hard drive. it’s hardly ideal, but it’s not like all my ranting and raving is totally lost in the bowels of Facebook’s foul digestive system. FWIW:

    Kat Herding's photo.
  • Kat Herding also, I return to certain theme’s with some frequency here, notably: news and views about Hindu nationalism. while this is not the same sort of conversation one might spark up via blogging, it has resulted in some quite interesting and (I think) useful social exchanges. despite Doc Searls‘s “markets are conversations” and my implicit underwriting of that #1 Cluetrain thesis, I never allowed comments on my blogs (being inherently a closet Fascist) so the social interaction here on Facebook has taught me quite a lot, and yes, now I’m totally addicted.
  • Dave Winer Kat, wow — if 1. Facebook search doesn’t do much and 2. People post to Facebook instead of blogging then 3. The knowledge accumulation process stopped when all the bloggers started using Facebook. I never thought of it that way until now.
  • Kat Herding yeah, the lack of search sucks deeply, and much is lost – not least, the ability to link back to even recent posts of one’s own.
  • Kat Herding the “Graph Search” Facebook rolled out to much clueless media ballyhoo is clearly implemented to the advantage of advertisers, not us mere peons. for the record: I piss on it from a great height.
  • Kat Herding but to reiterate, anyone who has not downloaded their account might want to try it.
  • Boris Mann Hi Yule Heibel — awesome to be name checked, and so lovely to see you are on your own domain. Might I suggest cut/pasting that long chunk of THOUGHT either as a postscript or into the comments, so that your content lives on in your own space. See you on the web, surfs up!
  • Dave Winer Maybe what’s needed is a 12-step program with sponsors to get people blogging. When one of your associates posts something great on Facebook, your job is to post a comment reminding them to put it on their blog, like Boris Mann just did.
  • Kat Herding re search, I’ve never tested this before, but these results are pathetic. my FB privacy settings allow search engines to index my stuff, but this Google search finds only two hits. the reality is that I’ve mentioned Hindutva *many* times here.

    In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries ver…See More
  • Dave Winer

    Okay so people who used to blog now prefer to post their observations on Faceboo…See More
  • Maria Benet Have you seen this? More

    “The more you blog, the less you are building”
  • Yule Heibel Love these comments – you’re blowing my mind here, so much great stuff to think about.

    Yep, Boris, I’m going to update (and/or cross-post) this stuff on my blog (more work, oh yay… haha), just haven’t had time yet (and am not going to get to it tonight, either!).

    And Maria, yes, I saw that arrive in my inbox via Medium’s weekly email, but I haven’t read it yet. How.Ever. First thought: the author is talking about blogging if you actually have something to sell (i.e., you have a startup that presumably has …uh, *a business model*??)? (As I said, I haven’t read the article, but that’s my impression from the lede/ email.) Well, neither you nor I have something to sell, at least nothing we’ve defined and/or declared. There isn’t anything we’re trying to sell via our writings on our blogs. So… The suggestion that blogging is a stumbling block to success only holds water if you actually have a plan. I would love to have a plan. But in over 10 years of blogging, I, dummy-supreme, have failed to evolve a plan. I think I’m utterly and totally planless, in evolutionary terms mere noise, not signal, at least in a world where signal is defined by sales. Hence, blogging cannot possibly be a stumbling block to my success. For one thing, I’d first have to define my success (my “signal” in a world that’s for sale) and then attempt to jostle and jockey for position amid the noise. It’s war out there, isn’t it? My privilege (ha) lets me stay above the fray. But the price. The price…
  • Kat Herding btw, since I was talking about the FB-enabled full account download, I did it again today. unlike past downloads, this one included NO LINKS in my posts, and no images. the images are probably in the separate folder provided, but no longer associated with the posts they originally went with. in other words: next to useless. this despite a 250 megabyte file – and that’s ZIPPED. these people apparently can’t get *anything* right. fuck them. still, I have lotsa fun here.
  • Kat Herding btw, I had no plan when I blogged this stuff on my Entropy Gradient Reversals blog, but then I sold it to what is now Basic Books for $50,000, which I think is not so bad for not having, you know, like, a plan.

    From one of today’s most original, outspoken, and outrageous writers comes an ex…See More
  • Jon Husband << This saddens me. It should sadden you, too. It seems I don’t value my means of content production, …and, well, I don’t value yours, either. >> To the heart of the matter. Thanks for this post, Yule.

Then, in addition, Jon Husband took the conversation to his Facebook wall, while on Scripting Dave Winer wrote a couple of Facebook-and-blogging (or should that be vs.?) posts here, here, and here (and a more technically oriented post here).

Another interesting branch sprouting from this conversation: what to do about links to articles? I’ve been posting them to Facebook or Twitter, although for years (since the service started), I’ve posted my favorites to Diigo, from when they’d end on my Berkman/Harvard blog once a week as the Sunday Diigo Links Post. Well, the other day I realized Diigo wasn’t working for me: I couldn’t bookmark anything, which also meant that I didn’t have anything lined up for that automatic “links post” last Sunday. The ever-intrepid and fiercely independent Boris Mann knows it’s better to retain control of that stream, too, and he just posts all of his goodies to a special links blog, here. Might be worth emulating.


Online conversations: some observations

February 20, 2014

I don’t blog anymore and instead I occasionally scatter my thoughts on Facebook, or, in 140-character shorthand form, on Twitter. For some years now, I’ve been using third-party applications, which are “free,” but which I don’t own. I don’t post to my “Harvard/Berkman” blog, nor to my own yuleheibel DOT com blog. (Update: since writing […]

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