California Design 1930-1965:
"Living in a Modern Way"

review by Patrick Kapty







Installation view
Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA
I just got home from viewing the new exhibit at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), California Design 1930-1965: "Living in a Modern Way", and I'm frothing at the mouth and overcome with modernist jewelry envy!! The exhibition is meticulously curated for quality and significance, and also beautifully staged in a setting that showcases the original art and design in a unique and stunning way, and makes each piece leap out at the viewer.

Though the jewelry and metalwork is only a small part of the overall exhibit, the pieces are all knockouts and housed in a custom display that looks like a small model of a futuristic Plexiglas-domed city. The standout pieces for me were a magnificent necklace in sterling ebony and ivory by Byron Wilson, and an equally incredible sterling and enamel 'peacock tail' necklace by Arline Fisch!


Arline Fisch (b. 1931, active San Diego)
Peacock Tail necklace, 1952
Silver, enamel
9" x 7-1/2"
LACMA, Gift of Arline Fisch in honor of Dr. Jae Carmichael
© Arline Fisch
Photo © 2011 Museum of Associates/LACMA

In other categories, what caught my eye in particular were the woven wire hanging sculptures by Ruth Asawa! If at all possible, don't miss this exhibition! If you can't make it in person, the accompanying book is beautifully done and reasonably priced and available for ordering on the museum website (

Margaret De Patta (1903 - 1964, active San Francisco area and Napa)
Designs Contemporary (San Francisco and Napa, n.d.)
Pin, c. 1946-57
Silver, quartz
2" x 3-1/2"
LACMA, Decorative Arts and Design Acquisition and Deacession Funds
© Margaret De Patta Estate, courtesy of Martha Bielawski
Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA
From the Los Angeles Museum of Art Press Release:

The exhibition—the first major study of modern California design—examines the state’s key role in shaping the material culture of the country at mid-century. California Design features more than 350 objects in wide ranging media, including furniture, textiles, fashion, graphic and industrial design, ceramics, jewelry, metalwork, architectural drawings, and film, as well as two period re-creations—most notably the living room from the home of renowned designers Charles and Ray Eames.

The exhibition is organized by Wendy Kaplan, Curator and Department Head, and Bobbye Tigerman, Assistant Curator, of LACMA’s Decorative Arts and Design Department.

Charles Eames (1907-1978, active Venice)
Ray Eames (1912-1988, active Venice)
Herman Miller Furniture Company
ESU (Eames storage unit), c. 1949
Zinc-plated steel, birch-faced and plastic-coated plywood, lacquered particle board, rubber
69" x 16"
LACMA, Gift of Mr. Sid Avery and Mr. James Corcoran
© 2011 Eames Office LLC (; Herman Niller, Inc.
Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Exhibition Overview

“California is America, only more so,” the author Wallace Stegner famously declared in 1959. Throughout most of the twentieth century, the state symbolized the good life in America. After 1945 a burgeoning, newly prosperous population—intoxicated by the power to purchase after the deprivation years of the Great Depression and the wartime rationing of goods—turned the state into America’s most important center for progressive architecture and furnishings.

This exhibition explores how the California of our collective imagination—a democratic utopia where a benign climate permitted life to be led informally and largely outdoors—was translated into a material culture that defined an era. To illustrate how California provided the ideal environment for modernism to flourish in a way particular to the state, the exhibition is divided into four sections: “Shaping,” “Making,” “Living,” and “Selling.” As émigré Greta Magnusson Grossman declared in 1951, California design “is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions…It has developed out of our own preference for living in a modern way.”

Greta Magnusson Grossman (b. Sweden, 1906-1999, active Los Angeles
Glenn of California (Arcadia, 1948-92)
Desk (with storage unit), 1952; manufactured 1952-c.1954
Walnut, iron, formica
47-58" x 22-3/4" x 40"
LACMA, Decorative Arts Deaccession Fund
© Greta Magnusson Grossman Estate
Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA
Shaping California Modern

In the 1920s boom economy, California experienced extraordinary population growth. Millions of new residents needed homes and furnishings, and in the 1930s, buildings and their contents started to be made in modern ways and in modern styles.

Gertrud Natzler (b. Austria, 1908-1971, active Los Angeles
Otto Natzler (b. Austria 1908-2007, active Los Angeles)
Bowl, 1943
Height: 3-1/2" diameter; 8-1/2"
LACMA, Gift of Rose A. Sperry 1972 Revocable Trust
© 2007 Gail Reynolds Natzler, Trustee of the Natzler Trust
Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Making California Modern

After 1945, the United States became the world’s strongest industrial, military, and cultural power. California played a key role in this development, having dominated defense and aerospace production during World War II. After the war, this escalated production had a galvanizing effect on the design and manufacture of consumer goods in the state. California’s material culture was shaped by the imperative to apply innovative wartime materials and production methods to peacetime use. For example, Charles and Ray Eames began working with molded plywood to make leg splints for the Navy about 1943, and produced their now-iconic furniture made with this material a few years later. California artists working in traditional craft media also responded to the spirit of modernism and experimentation. These “designer-craftsmen,” as they became known—including Edith Heath, David Cressey, Sam Maloof, and Margaret De Patta—tried to adapt new methods of production to make their work more accessible to the new middle classes. Whether handmade or industrially produced, the goal was to provide well-designed homes and furnishings for the millions of newcomers to California who craved them.


Richard Neutra, Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, 1948
Photo by Julius Shulman, 1947
© J. Paul Getty Trust, Used with permission, Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library of the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10)

Selling California Modern

Julius Shulman declared, “Good design is seldom accepted. It has to be sold.” He was referring to his own role in staging architectural photography, but as this section demonstrates, the statement could be equally applied to exhibitions, stores, advertising, publications, and film, which were the principal agents in disseminating modern California design.

“What Makes the California Look” was a question so pressing it was the cover story of the Los Angeles Times “Home” magazine in October 1951. Many of the objects photographed for the cover—an Eames fiberglass chair, an Architectural Pottery planter, a Van Keppel-Green lounge chair—have become emblems of California design, endlessly seen in photographs of the period.

The works from the LA Times cover (or nearly identical examples) have been located and reassembled to recreate the original photo shoot for the exhibition, demonstrating how selling California’s products could not be separated from selling the idea of California itself.

By the end of the 1960s, the relentless optimism that had made California the embodiment of the good life became far more subdued. Counterculture protests and ecological and social justice issues challenged the very idea of consumerism and unbridled growth. These shifting beliefs, however, do not diminish the unprecedented and lasting contributions of California design at mid-century. This exhibition tells a story of the exhilarating innovation and optimism about building a better, modern world that made California loom large in America’s, and indeed the world’s, imagination.

Installation view
California Design 1935-1960: "Living in a Modern Way"
October 1, 2011-June 3, 2012
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way”
October 1, 2011–June 3, 2012
 Resnick Pavilion

5905 Wilshire Boulevard (at Fairfax Avenue), Los Angeles, CA, 90036 | 323 857-6000 |
Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday: noon-8 pm; Friday: noon-9 pm; Saturday, Sunday: 11 am-8 pm; closed Wednesday

General Admission: Adults: $15; students 18+ with ID and senior citizens 62+: $10
Free General Admission: Members; children 17 and under; after 5 pm weekdays for L.A.
County residents; second Tuesday of every month; Target Free Holiday Mondays

Installation view
© Airstream, Inc. Reproduced by Permission
Photo © 2011 Museum Associates LACMA
Review by Patrick Kapty, “Patrick Kapty California Dreamin Retro Modern” (760) 671-4879 

...with excerpts from The Los Angeles County Museum of Art Press Release

Photographs courtesy of The Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Web Design by Marbeth Schon

© copyright MODERN SILVER magazine, 2012