The Best Book Published in 2011 on Mid-Century Design

Wendy Kaplan’s California Design 1930-1965 is a big book about a very big state and its enormously influential ideas on living and what we live with. Chock-full of lush color photos, it features instructive and inspirational scholarship. Any serious library – public and private – of texts on the history of material culture and mid-century design should have a copy.

Los Angeles is arguably the quintessential California city. Its people, places and the homes they live in and the lifestyles they lead are icons for the state. Though you may get a gentle argument from a few other cities, most will likely just go with the flow.

Two photographs, taken from the same spot, show the view looking down from the hills to LA’s Wilshire Boulevard; one taken in 1922 and the other in 1929. The images tellingly reveal the dramatic growth of the city. From desert to metropolis.

Best know as the motion picture industry’s home, Los Angeles inexplicably perpetuates this myth. The earliest movie studios were located on the East Coast. Where they belonged. With their inventors. Thomas Edison, for instance. His Black Maria studio – it looked just the way its name sounds – in West Orange, NJ was built such that it could be rotated in order to best take advantage of sunlight. At Edison’s studio such famous 60-second moving pictures as The Electrocution of an Unruly Circus Elephant, the daring and scandalous The Kiss (between two famous stage actors) and Fred Ott’s Sneeze  were filmed. Note how the titles describe succinctly and perfectly the stories.

Los Angeles has always been more than movies. They practically invented freeways, for instance. LA was the place to which the fledgling movie industry fled: to make it more difficult for the industry’s east coast  “Trust” thugs to catch them for purported patent infringements, for its proximity to the Mexican border (see the thugs just mentioned) and for the more accommodating climes. In SoCal, one didn’t need a studio that rotated to catch the sun, it was sunny all day. Every day. Steve Martin’s 1991 movie, L.A. Story, parodied precisely this point with Martin playing the part of a very much-unneeded Los Angeles TV weatherman.

California has been the subject of numerous travel posters. First, and most primitively, for those on horses seeking their gold fortunes. A little later, and much more stylishly, for the railroads that crisscrossed the continent and, still later, airlines. The travel industry quickly figured out that California offered a “destination” (well before that term became a sales pitch) satisfying tourists of virtually every motivation including environmental, recuperative or therapeutic, amusement.

At the turn of the 20th century, California was a place to go; it was not a place to have been from. Like Hollywood’s smoke and mirrors, California’s mythology in many ways surpasses its actuality. Take for instance the iconic poster for California captured by 1966’s The Endless Summer featuring two surfers in search of the perfect wave. About the only thing Californian about it was the two surfers; otherwise, they engaged in the Hawaiian sport while traveling the world.

The argument in California Design 1930-1965: Living the Modern Way is that the state fostered, incubated and produced a design aesthetic as influential as was Hollywood’s: global in scope, setting the agenda for what’s right, what’s good and what’s cool about the stuff we surround ourselves with in our homes and adjacent surroundings.

In the introductory chapter, Wendy Kaplan writes about a Los Angeles Times “Home” magazine cover dated October 21, 1951. The cover is titled “What Makes the California Look” with no closing punctuation. The cover depicts a broad range of objects – furniture by Van Keppel and Eames, ceramics by Harry McIntosh and Laura Andresson, for instance – in a room setting. Kaplan notes the Times was asking a “question so pressing it was posed on the cover.” Yet, clearly, the cover, shown full-sized opposite Kaplan’s text, has no question. It is a statement. The Times was making an assertion about style, not an inquiry. There was no wondering, though there was plenty of instruction provided by example. THIS is what makes for the California Look. Pay attention.

While easy to make fun of (sometimes Californians seem self-parodies), elements associated with the state make for idiosyncrasies that make a difference.  I noted its climate in reference to moviemaking. Too, the mild climate helped produce a relaxed and informal lifestyle where there was little discrimination between indoors and outdoors and between the out-of-doors and landscaping. One segued smoothly into the next.

“California Modern,” according to Kaplan, is “a loose, albeit clearly recognizable group of ideas.” The book seeks to elucidate Greta Magnusson Grossman’s 1951 quote that CA design “is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions. . . . It has developed out of our preference for living in a modern way.” The text’s subjects range from revisioning architecture to tableware.

California Design’s contents include discussion of émigré designers in CA, the architecture to be found in California, interiors and objects within the structures, the unexpected dividends of war, the business of designer craftsmen in CA, textiles and fabrics, graphic design and the dissemination of California design.

The chapter by Bill Stern (“Unexpected Dividends”), for example, discusses how postwar designers employed various industrial materials – including rebar (round iron rods used to reinforce concrete), reticulated steel, spun aluminum, plywood and fiberglass – to construct and invent new designs in furniture. Today, in the new millennium, designers turned to repurposed (and re-fabricated) industrial objects to populate trendy loft living spaces and, briefly, an aesthetic named “steam-punk” was faddishly popular. Plus ca change … Too, the chapter on marketing and promoting the style is as vital to understanding the subject as are the objects.

Some people have one book in them. Oh, they may have more than one book published (or, today, publish the books themselves) but, really, they only had the one. Sometimes they are novelists, other times historians; make it up or report it as it was, there are one-book authors. When a writer can come up with two blockbusters, that’s saying something. Wendy Kaplan is such a writer. One of her previous books was the groundbreaking “The Art That is Life”: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1875-1920. A catalogue for an exhibit initiated at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the book and the exhibit set the standard for all subsequent exhibits focusing on the Arts & Crafts Movement.

California Design 1930-1965: Living the Modern Way edited by Wendy Kaplan Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-262-01607-0, 250 color photos, 100 B&W illustrations.

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