Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Through June 3, 2012
by Tucker Neel
Wallace M. Byam’s iconic silver Clipper Airstream trailer from 1936 greets visitors to LACMA’s exhibition California Design, 1930-1965: "Living in a Modern Way," the first major museum exhibition dedicated to investigating the importance of California midcentury modern design. While the gleaming road zeppelin is an alluring opener, the best way to enter LACMA’s show is through the museum’s gift shop just around the corner. Normally, exhibition gift shops touting reproductions of paintings on posters and umbrellas render “fine art” kitsch, but in the context of this exhibition, the gift shop is an appropriate place to orient oneself.
The objects on display in both wings of the show are designed for mass reproduction, defying the aura of “art” in favor of egalitarian consumption. In the gift shop, visitors can peruse and purchase chairs, pottery, dolls, prints and many other objects that have their antecedence in displays in the main exhibit. In fact, the gift shop’s DCW (Dining Chair Wood) by Charles and Ray Eames is almost in the sight line of the “original” on display. The only things separating the two are time and provenance. While the LACMA gift shop’s $170 Canister Set with Stand may not be exactly the same as Louis Ipsen’s original design from 1932, the product retains near verisimilitude, the only visible difference being that one bears an inconspicuously stamped LACMA insignia. In seeing these gift shop objects first, one can better understand the ideology that motivated the principles of modern design, a philosophy best summed up by the Eames in their desire to design “the best for the least for the most.”
For a first of its kind to exhibition, California Design looks quite familiar. This is due in large part to the relationships we already have with some of the objects on display, which are so commonplace in our daily existence as to be banal. A perfect example of this is the work of Henry Keck, whose aerodynamic glass and chromed metal sugar, salt and pepper shakers are as much a fixture of short-order dining as burgers and fries. Additionally, the inclusion of his Covered Roadside Barricade Light (1963) further draws our attention to the ubiquity of designed objects that we might not consider worthy of appreciation, were they not highlighted as objects justifying singular contemplation. What makes their inclusion revelatory is that they are truly the same as any of their companions out in the “real world.”
California Design takes on an air of familiarity due to the exhibition design itself, created by Los Angeles architectural firm Hodgetts+Fung. Their sprawling curvilinear floor plan and wave-like metal armatures give the space a kind of gimmicky Jetson’s feel, something redolent of an airport lobby or Expo hall. Though their design creates poorly lit vignettes, especially in a portion of the space dedicated to showcasing the early work of RM Schindler, the overall exhibition layout does encourage non-hierarchical perambulation amongst thematic displays centering on four main themes: “Shaping,” “Making,” “Living” and “Selling.” Each section contextualizes different factors that shaped modern California design, charting this history from the population boom during and after WWII with all of its effects on production, reproduction and domestication.
The exhibition’s most engaging section is “Living,” which highlights what makes California a particularly fertile place for modern design—a climate that allows for an indoor/ outdoor lifestyle. This sentiment is made clear in a collection of curving alcoves holding furniture, objects and garments. A white-rock covered island in the middle of the exhibition floor holds Walter Lamb’s turquoise Chaise (1954), an object familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time sunning by a swimming pool. Nearby, Mary Ann DeWeese’s iconic lobster-print swimwear further speaks to the importance and playfulness of SoCal beach culture, a point accentuated by the presence of a neighboring surfboard from 1961 by Hobart “Hobbie” Alter, detailed with pin-striping inspired by supersonic aircraft.
There is no doubt that these objects, and the more than 350 on display, are fascinating because they signify the innovative spirit that inspired their creation. However, seen in a contemporary light–against the realities of how modern design is packaged, sold and consumed today the exhibition becomes more problematic. Unfortunately, California Design repeatedly falls into the trap of re-authenticating the aura of the original, re-situating modernist design practices as rarified and elite. The most startling example of this is the museum’s full-scale transplantation of Charles and Ray Eames’ living room from their Case Study House #8, complete with knick knacks and fake houseplants (the museum asks visitors not to take photos of this life-size diorama). There is an overarching nostalgia at play here, a desire to literally re-create the past according to the ideological and institutional demands of today. The institutional promotion of this artifact threatens to shift the focus from the democratic motivations that formed the foundation of the Eames’ practice to something more in line with the promotional techniques of companies like Design Within Reach, which sells the Eames’ reproductions for many thousands of dollars, or publications like Dwell magazine, who, along with their advertisers, promote modern design as a signifier of class and as an aspirational means to wealth and higher social standing. At its best, California Design sheds light on what is plainly visible yet overlooked, focusing on how this peculiar land of sunshine and abundance contributed to the modern world we inhabit today. At its worst, the exhibition re-plays well-worn nostalgic longings for modern design without focusing a critical lens on its effects—how the sign of “the modern” has shifted to a different register, one far removed from its origins.
Tucker Neel is an Assistant Professor in the Communication Arts and Liberal Studies departments at Otis College of Art and Design. He is also founder and director of 323 Projects, a telephone-gallery showcasing audio art. You can access 323 Projects by calling (323) 843-4652 anytime, day or night.