All images courtesy of LACMA, Decorative Arts and Design Council Fund
Designer Greta Magnusson Grossman couldn't have known the profound impact her brand of Swedish modernism would have when it hit stateside in 1940, the year she set up shop in Beverly Hills. Her bullet-shaped lamps, teak and tweed seating and playful "atomic" room dividers were instantly popular, attracting attention from celebs like Greta Garbo and Joan Fontaine as well as from the budding California design community. Just a decade later, Grossman, firmly entrenched in the midcentury movement, observed that California design "is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions...It has developed out of our preferences for living in a modern way."
Greta Magnusson Grossman Above: Desk (with storage unit), 1952. Walnut, iron, formica. Below: Lamp, model 831, 1949. Iron, aluminum.
Just what were the conditions that inspired one of the most influential eras of 20th-century design? That's what LACMA's California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way investigates. It's part of the Pacific Standard Time series, an exploration of Southern California art on exhibition at over sixty different museums and galleries.
As you walk the exhibition floor, you read the names of hundreds of designers. Grossman shares the spotlight with Kem Weber, Jock Peters and architects Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler and J.R. Davidson—names as familiar to us by now as the midcentury look is, thanks to the proliferation of the era's greatest hits via Design Within Reach, Mad Men and a general aesthetic appreciation for a teal-colored wall and a walnut credenza set off by a handblown glass dish. Even though we may think we know this time period and all its accoutrements, exhibition organizer Wendy Kaplan and curator Bobbye Tigerman give plenty of credit to more obscure designers and craftsmen like Trude Guermonprez, an accomplished weaver, and Zahara Schatz, whose bulbous hanging lamp woven with wire was, for me at least, one of the exhibition's biggest stunners. It just goes to show that aside from all the atomic-era knick knacks, the vintage clothes and the designer knock-offs we know today as the remnants of midcentury culture (I've seen so-called Eiffel Chairs for $50 online), there is still another, deeper and more expansive story to tell.
As the population in California baby-boomed, the efficiency and precision of modernism seemed like the best way to deal with pre- and post-war uncertainties, especially as cities teemed with a brand new batch of nuclear families. Prefabricated homes in tract communities were the new urban oases, each neighborhood complete with its own school and playground just a minutes walk away. Architects established the open floor plan in homes, using sliding doors and room dividers to close off or make spaces larger depending on a family's needs. Big, bright, orderly and open signified optimism, something a post-war country desperately needed.
The exhibition manages to set the scene of Depression era through post WWII California without delving too much into historical fine print. You won't see any sluggish documentaries on Roosevelt or Truman. Instead, the mood is established with old Barbie and Polaroid commercials, back when Ali MacGraw (from Love Story) was the spokesmodel for the Polaroid Swinger. Things are kept intentionally light. There are plucky, 50s bathing suits on display alongside gorgeous old issues of Art & Architecture. There's a 1936 Airstream with wood details, a pristine, cream Studebaker Avanti, even a life-size replica of the Eames' 1949 steel-frame house in Pacific Palisades, complete with the actual contents of the original living room. It all says: fun, easy, relaxed. Moving through the collection of objects (there are about 350), you can picture a time when it seems like all people did was lounge on molded plywood, flip through a collection of Saul Bass' stunning LP's, read beautifully art directed magazines and shoot flawless cubes of ice into a nearby cocktail shaker with "ice guns." Without using dense, explanatory texts, Kaplan and Tigerman convey a sense of historical context by expertly establishing the spirit of the time. In fact, I don't think I've ever been to an exhibition where I've absorbed the information simply through osmosis—no small curatorial feat.
California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way
LACMA, Resnick Pavillion
On view through June 3, 2012