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LACMA's 'Living in a Modern Way' re-creates the 'California Look'

The museum pieces together a 1951 cover of the Los Angeles Times Home magazine for a real-life vision of the essence of California design.

October 01, 2011|By David A. Keeps, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • An exhibit that replicates the Los Angeles Times Home magazine cover from 1951 opens at Los Angeles County Museum of Art Oct. 1.
An exhibit that replicates the Los Angeles Times Home magazine cover from… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

When the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opens "California Design, 1930-1965: 'Living in a Modern Way'" on Saturday, curators will celebrate midcentury innovation with 11,000 square feet of furniture, fashion, toys and one 60-year-old magazine cover brought to life.

The museum has re-created an October 1951 cover of the Los Angeles Times Home magazine showing a plastic Eames armchair, Van Keppel-Green cord patio furniture and other pieces of modern living along with a headline that confidently declared: "What Makes the California Look."

"The reason we chose this image was because it encapsulates the essence of California," said Bobbye Tigerman, co-curator of the show. "All of the objects shown in the photo were then used in an exhibition that traveled around the country, and some actually traveled abroad in a State Department show. Not only did The Times deem these the essential pieces of the era, but these choices were sent out into the world to represent California modernism."

"Living in a Modern Way" has been in development since 2006 and is being presented as part of Pacific Standard Time, the initiative in which dozens of cultural institutions across the region spotlight Los Angeles' contributions to modern art. The LACMA show also includes a full-scale replica of Charles and Ray Eames' living room, complete with 1,864 objects moved from the Pacific Palisades landmark.

The immediate postwar period was "a time of incredible experimentation and energy," Tigerman said. "New small businesses and large manufacturers were working with young designers to create new objects for the home."

Many of the designs, including the Eames chair, the cord furniture and an Architectural Pottery planter, are still produced or have been reissued or copied for contemporary consumers. In terms of capturing what would become iconic pieces from the era, Tigerman said, "this photographic vignette — which The Times called 'an abstract assemblage' since it's clearly neither someone's living room or patio — was incredibly prescient."

Indeed, 60 years on, the scene looks like it could have been taken from the 2011 home of some young retro-modernist L.A. homeowners.

"People are still clamoring for accessible modernism, and these pieces fulfill that desire as well as speak to interest in the past and in how people lived when there was promise and hope, the dawning of a new age," Tigerman said. "It speaks to contemporary desires and hearkening back to old times."

The photograph illustrated another trend, Tigerman said, citing as a favorite discovery the ergonomic cocktail shaker by Claremont ceramist Rupert Deese. "You have machine-made chairs by Eames and handcrafted pots by Harrison McIntosh that are effortlessly combined. That mix of industrial design and artisan crafts is characteristic of the period and continues to be part of the California look today."

Assembling all the items from the 1951 cover was an arduous process. Some pieces, such as patio furniture by Van Keppel-Green, fabrics by Maria Kipp and a pitcher by Alan Adler were already part of LACMA's decorative arts collection. Other works were acquired specifically for this show, and some pieces were borrowed from private collectors. Two designs — a rug by Joseph Blumfield and a plastic screen with preserved botanicals by Spencer Smilie — had to be re-created.

"We got very lucky with the screen," Tigerman said. "Our designer found an article in Popular Mechanics explaining how that exact screen was made."

The influence of the Home magazine, published weekly from 1940 to 1985, was crucial in curating the rest of the show.

"Going through the old issues helped us understand the major players and the issues that were being discussed," Tigerman said. "The Home magazine helped us shape which designers would be in the show and what the major themes of the exhibition. It was a great resource and provided a lot of biographical detail we couldn't find anywhere else."

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