More than 250 mid-century modern design objects ranging from furniture and textiles to fashion and classic vehicles will be on view in Salem, Massachusetts, as part of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM)’s California Design, 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way exhibition.
The work of designers Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler, along with previously unheralded figures, is contextualized within the creative climate of California and the social and cultural conditions of the time.
The exhibition shows how California became mid-century America’s most important source of progressive architecture and furnishings and explores the state’s influence on the nation’s material culture. Four thematic sections—Shaping, Making, Living and Selling—tell the origins of modern California design, its materials and makers, and the dissemination of a California look and modern lifestyle worldwide.
“The goal was to provide well-designed, accessible and affordable modern homes and furnishings to millions of Californians and those around the country who craved them,” said Austen Barron Bailly, PEM's George Putnam Curator of American Art, formerly of LACMA. “The designers who embraced California modern ideals wanted to make everyday life beautiful and comfortable. They responded to California’s environment and pioneered new ways to meld craft production with industrial manufacturing.”
Working with a spirit of modernism and experimentation, California designers adopted new materials and production methods leading to innovations in form and function for objects and architecture. A tremendous synergy arose between local designers and émigrés who brought European modernism and advanced professional training in art, architecture, craft and design to the Golden State.
Opportunities created by housing and population booms, as well as the burgeoning motion picture industry, propelled this culture of innovation and experimentation. The phenomenon accelerated when California took the lead in aerospace and defense manufacturing during World War II. Creative peacetime applications of wartime technologies and materials such as plywood, fiberglass and steel furthered exploration.
The accompanying 360-page catalogue, edited by Wendy Kaplan, is co-published by LACMA and MIT Press, and features essays by Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman, along with other leading architecture and design historians.
The exhibition’s second publication, A Handbook of California Design, 1930-1965: Craftspeople, Designers, Manufacturers, edited by Tigerman, documents the lives and work of more than 140 significant mid-twentieth century figures in California design and was created by the internationally renowned graphic designer Irma Boom.
Various public programs will also accompany the exhibition inclduing:
Opening Day Celebration: Saturday, March 29, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The museum will host gallery talks including a lecture by California Design curator Wendy Kaplan followed by Q&A with her and PEM’s coordinating curator Austen Barron Bailly.
Engage with an Elephant: Select Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Guests will be able to view the toy elephant that husband-and-wife designers Charles and Ray Eames made. The couple invented a way of molding plywood that they used in many of their designs. Join a museum educator in the California Design exhibition to explore this piece and other examples of creative innovation.
Members-Only Gallery Talks: Wednesday, April 16, and Friday, April 25, at 9:00 a.m. Bailly will lead the first talk, followed by Gavin Andrews, assistant director for family, student and teacher programs and interpretive liaison for the exhibition. Tours are held exclusively for members before the museum opens.
Evening Party: Thursday, April 17, 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Guests will enjoy standup comedy and improvisational performances, see demos of '50s and '60s hairstyling, test their listening skills in the 'name that theme song' contest and much more. Guests are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite '60s sitcom character.
The Hot Seat: Explore form and function in innovative chair design Wednesdays, May 7 and 14, 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. and Saturdays, May 10 and 17, 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. With inspiration from the exhibition, students will learn to use traditional and nontraditional materials to transform chair design. The course is led by instructor Jeff Elsbecker, a sculptor, designer and professor of fine art. The cost is $220 for members and $260 for non-members.
Organized by the LACMA, this exhibition is the first major study of modern California design and PEM’s presentation is the exhibition’s only East Coast venue—on view from March 29 to July 6.
Photo Credits: Items part of the California Design, 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way exhibition. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.