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LACMA’s “California Design” Draws First-Ever History Of California’s Material Culture

LACMA's California Designs

Living in Los Angeles, many of us are probably living the California modern lifestyle, whether we know it or not. Blurred lines between indoor and outdoor living, an appreciation for bright, saturated colors and openness to cultural influences around the world. These are all hallmarks of design that grew as a consequence of California’s history and, dare I say it, climate.

September 29, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art unveiled the first ever major survey of California design at mid-century. Encompassing California from the 1930s to 1960s, it attempts valiantly and beautifully to curate the objects that together captivated the world and led to Wallace Stegner’s famous 1959 observation that California is “America, only more so.”

LACMA's California Designs, Kim Weber's Desk and Chair

The exhibition took five years in the making and it comes just in time, says Wendy Kaplan, LACMA’s Department Head and Curator of the Decorative Arts and Design Department. “Surprisingly, given the importance of California in design at mid century, there has been no major survey until now. It also became clear that so many of our great masters of architecture, design and craft were in their 80s and 90s and we were going to lose them. It was very important to get their stories,” says Kaplan.

Titled California Design, 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way,” the exhibition brought together over 350 wide-ranging objects. Modernist aficionados will get their fill whether they veer toward ceramics, textile, fashion, accessory design or architecture.

LACMA's California Designs, Paul László's "Paul Laszlo's European Group" Textile

Los Angeles architectural firm Hodgetts+Fung created a large curving steel structure that dictated the flow of visitors across the overwhelming exhibition inside Resnick Pavillion. The curving structure and meandering pathways created way stations for visitors to wander in and out of, physically discovering new aspects of California design history. Fabricated drop ceilings also created an intimacy with the objects on display.

Many of the objects, despite being placed on Coriander tops, would still make great additions to any Angeleno home today. The Van Keppel-Green Lounge Chair and Ottoman designed in 1939 and made in 1959 is perfect for a large living or perhaps a poolside vista. Exhibited at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, Kem Weber’s desk and chair are still seem lush additions to any office. Should ladies care to make a statement, Arline Fisch’s Peacock Tail necklace is it. Its bright blue and greenish accents are eye catchers. For those who elect for a simpler palette, there is Byron Wilson’s silver, ebony and ivory necklace.

LACMA's California Designs, Byron Wilson's Necklace

Names familiar to us pepper the exhibition: Eames, Schindler, Neutra. Natzler, Genrich. But there are names there to be re-discovered. More than just eye candy, LACMA has also taken the time to capture the story of eleven artists and set them on a multimedia panel toward the back of the exhibition. With over 350 objects (not counting the 1,800+ objects sitting perfectly positioned inside the transported Eames living room), there is more to see than can be seen in just one visit. “I say come early, come often!” Kaplan enthuses. I believe I’m ready to take that advice. As I leave the exhibition, I spot Paul Laszlo’s freeform shapes on textile and nearby Bernard Kester’s Strand cotton textile that reminded me of strawberry and peach sorbets mixed together. How I’d love to have pillowcases in that palette.

California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way is on exhibition from October 1 to March 25, 2012 at the Resnick Pavillion. If you can’t get enough of the exhibition, a much-awaited free iPad app with more artist interviews will be available soon. Watch for it.

LACMA's California Designs, Hendrik Von Keppel's Lounge Chair and Ottoman

LACMA's California Designs, Bernard Kester's Strand Textile

LACMA's California Designs, Arline Fisch's Peacock Tail necklace

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