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California dreaming at the Peabody Essex

The Alcoa Forecast Garden in Los Angeles, completed in 1959. Julius Shulman Photography Archive

SALEM — Take a few steps into the expansive Special Exhibitions Gallery at the Peabody Essex Museum and a consumer-based American dream from the not-so-distant past surrounds you. There is a Charles and Ray Eames fiberglass chair near a Walter Brown-designed patio chaise that would have been carefully placed near a kidney-shaped pool. Outside the gallery is a gleaming Airstream trailer, a sleek aluminum ship of the highway designed to cart a family off to a sunny holiday.

“California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way,” a show that originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2011 and opens Saturday at PEM, offers more than 250 midcentury artifacts as evidence of California’s dominance in the modern design world. During this period, designers from the state stripped rococo flounce and Colonial-era embellishments from art, architecture, furniture, and fashion to define the sleek, modern look of a design-savvy Atomic Age.

“There was an enormous population boom in California between 1920 and 1930,” said Austen Barron Bailly, curator of American Art at PEM. “It coincided with the economic boom. After World War II, 850,000 GIs claimed the benefits of subsidized housing in California alone.”


The surging population and burgeoning postwar economy created the need for new housing, and also furnishings for those homes. Émigré designers from Europe arrived in California before and after the war. Architects Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and J.R. Davidson and the designers Kem Weber, Greta Magnusson Grossman, and Jock Peters stepped in to fill the demand and shaped a new California aesthetic.

Meanwhile, Americans (and American designers) streamed into the state looking for sunshine, warm temperatures, and Doris Day.

“California has a mythical attraction that exists to this day,” said Bobbye Tigerman, a co-curator of the exhibition at LACMA. “People were coming from abroad as well as other places within the United States because there was this perception that in California you could do things that you couldn’t do elsewhere. The rules didn’t apply. Even though this is a myth, it still has elements of truth.”

Optimism, daring, and exuberance are what unite the furniture, jewelry, ceramics, sculpture, architectural and graphic drawings, toys, textiles, and fashion. The show is split into four themes — shaping, making, living, and selling. The objects in “California Design” were not only intended to be beautiful, but salable. New materials and manufacturing techniques developed during the war were adapted to mass produce everything from ceramics to homes.


The Eameses, arguably the king and queen of this brave new world, were commissioned to make lightweight leg splints for injured World War II soldiers (those splints can be seen in the show). The couple were able to take those experiments with molded plywood to create their legendary chairs, ones that are still sold and coveted today.

Because reproductions or knockoffs of the “Living in a Modern Way” objects can be found in stores and online, and because the real things are still plentiful on eBay, the show looks familiar. Midcentury has been having a resurgence for the past decade, and once again came to prominence when “Mad Men” debuted in 2007.

“My theory is that we always reject the style of our parents and embrace what our grandparents liked,” Tigerman said. “So we skip a generation. This revival started in the 1990s when people who were in their 30s would look at what their grandparents grew up with and said, ‘That’s what I want to have.’ ”

There are clothes (including two gorgeous dresses from top Hollywood designer Adrian, plus an Esther Williams bathing suit), children’s games, and home decor. But what truly defined California living were the homes. The climate created an indoor/outdoor lifestyle: airy, open homes wrapped around a central courtyard and swimming pool. Walls of windows and sliding glass doors created a seamless transition. The Neutra-designed Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, which is represented in the show by the famous Julius Shulman photograph, opens to panoramic views of the mountains and balmy temperatures.


“The lack of traditional styles in California, combined with a cross-cultural mix, gave designers the freedom to experiment and try new things without pushing up against entrenched conventions,” said fashion designer Trina Turk, a fan of the show whose work is inspired by midcentury California design. She owns a Palm Springs home not far from the Kaufmann House.

Tigerman and co-curator Wendy Kaplan first envisioned “California Design” when they realized that there was no book cataloging the output of the state’s expansive modern design community.

“Even though it is such a compelling topic, I think people here were unaware of the history and that no one had ever put it all between two covers,” Tigerman said. “And so I knew that we had to do this show. Also, many of the designers are in their 80s and 90s, and we knew we had a limited time to be able to get their stories.”

Tigerman said there was no particular event that inspired curators to start the show in 1930, but it was a decade when Art Deco gave way to modernism.

“California designers were increasingly on an international stage in the 1930s, and you saw that at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, which was the San Francisco World’s Fair,” said PEM’s Bailly.

The idea of a utopian California design movement began losing momentum in the 1960s as the Watts Riots erupted in Los Angeles and the University of California, Berkeley draft card burnings took place in 1965. During the 1970s and 1980s, many of the homes of the era were renovated and their original aesthetic lost. Some of these important homes are now being restored.


“Designers who embraced California modern wanted to make lives beautiful and comfortable,” Bailly said. “There’s something really timeless about that goal.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.