On my recent visit to Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time at the touring exhibit: “California Design 1930-1965, “Living in a Modern Way.” It brought up fond recollections of my design studies, and also made me nostalgic for my home in California.
The exhibit first opened in Los Angeles in 2011. It is a comprehensive study of mid-century modern California design and makes an argument that the contributions of Californian artists were broad, extending beyond architecture and ceramics to textiles, graphic design and more. The exhibit highlights those innovations produced in the Golden State. On display are over 250 objects, including an iconic aluminum 1936 Airstream trailer and a 1964 Studebaker Avanti car, a favorite from my home town in Indiana.
Objects by the acclaimed designers Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Dreyfuss, Dorothy Wright Liebes and Raymond Loewy are all featured, while the household names Levi Strauss and Mattel are profiled through displays of fashion and children’s toys.
Modern Californian homes were famously characterized by open floor plans and indoor/outdoor informal living. California became mid-century America’s most important source of progressive architecture and furnishings. The innovations in consumer goods helped transform modern American life. Pre-and post-war Californian designers were innovators, exploring new techniques and materials such as molded and shaped plywood, fiberglass, wire mesh and synthetic resin. These innovations redefined modern American culture and paved the way for the Ikeas of today.
The “California Look” was about casual living characterized in part by living areas dedicated to conversation and relaxation. The “conversation group” was introduced to encourage interaction amongst guests. The cantilever L-shaped sofa unit was one of the first in what would become today’s sectional sofas.
The Eames lounge chair has become an icon of Modern design and remains a sought after symbol of style today.
Glass-walled and open floor plan homes allowed the outdoors in while California’s climate permitted extending the living area into the outdoor space, evoking a lifestyle of simple elegance and informality. Objects such as lamps and chairs, once seen as interior furnishings, now became visible outdoors.
California symbolized the good life in America during the mid-century and California designers did their best to cultivate that image, showcasing a better life to be had through modern living in the Golden State.
Brisbane’s exhibition leaves me nostalgic and longing for more mid-centry design, an aesthetic that somehow inspires the feeling of a well designed life. Possibly, it’s time for a trip to Palm Springs California, where Mid-Century Modern Architecture abounds?
For those who are haven’t taken in the traveling exhibit at your local art museum the catalogue is available through the Getty Museum.
"Living in a Modern Way takes the California of our imagination—a utopia where a moderate climate permits life to be led informally and largely outdoors—and demonstrates how this was translated by California designers into a style that defined an era." It is a must have for those modernist coffee tables and is available at the Getty Store.
At an early age I set out to see the world, and while having already visited over 50 countries, I feel that my journey is just beginning. For me, travel and design go hand in hand. Whether seeking out great shops in trendy neighborhoods or exploring the architectural environment around me, discovering design inspiration everywhere I go enriches me to transform a client’s needs and desires into into their dream home.
Mike Howard is an award-winning designer specializing in kitchens, baths and small space design.