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California Design, 1930 –1965: Living in a Modern Way

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. Through July 6, 2014

California is a mythical place, and though opinions vary on the quality and direction of its leadership, that it continues to be in the vanguard of many if not most of the lifestyle trends that drive the evolution of our culture has never been in dispute. So it’s only appropriate that California Design 1930–1965, assembled by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) under curator Wendy Kaplan, should be focused on objects designed to create and define personal identity — houses, cars, furniture, housewares and appliances, and clothing — in the context of the culture of midcentury Modernism.

The exhibition is organized thematically around the ideas of Shaping, Making, Living, and Selling. California was beginning to grow rapidly in the 1920s, and though Modern architecture and design was still a relative anomaly, by the 1930s a combination of evolving taste, demand, and emerging industrial capacity began to shape the outlook of what had been a craft-based design community to one that was geared to larger volume. The explosion of industry during World War II evolved into satisfying the pent-up demand for housing and furnishings. Most important at this time was the acceptance of Modernism as a way of life that embodied everything that a prosperous, democratic, socially progressive nation should be.

Raymond Loewy’s Studebaker Avanti, 1964.
Photo: Walter Silver/PEM

One of the most striking features of the exhibition is its eclecticism — the spare, often minimalist architecture provides an armature for a broad and loose range of furnishings, housewares, and decorative arts. The show includes a fascinating collection of clothing — particularly bathing suits — and a range of objects from jewelry to cars, including Raymond Loewy’s sublime Studebaker Avanti. Unfortunately, the iconic manifestation of the unique blend of the simple rigor of the houses and the colorful, diverse range of furnishing is missing: The living room of the Eames House in Pacific Palisades, removed from the house in the course of an ongoing renovation and assembled at LACMA, did not make the trip across the country.

My only regret is that more could not have been shown at the Peabody Essex; it is unfortunate that many large pieces could not make the trip — they could have made a very good show a great one. It would also have been nice to compare some of this work with what was happening contemporaneously elsewhere in the world, particularly Scandinavia, where we see many similar lifestyle trends in a very different physical climate. This can be fodder for a future exhibition. In the meantime, go see this one.

Planning to tour California Design, 1930 –1965: Living in a Modern Way
BSA Space has organized a guided tour on Saturday, June 21st. The $45 ticket price includes the guided tour and lunch at Salem Beer Works afterward. Your ticket to the Peabody Essex also allows for reentry into the museum after lunch, should you choose to revisit the museum on your own. Purchase tickets here.