In 2011- 2012, a major exhibition entitled California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way,” was on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it attracted great attention and received high praise. Thereafter, in 2013-2014, it had a very successful tour in major cities throughout the United States, indicating that the subject resonated not only with Californians but also with other Americans who were interested in the great influence exerted by California’s visual culture in the mid-twentieth century and years following.
Through its large collection of objects and accompanying commentary, California Design showed how a number of ideas and motifs about daily life came together in California beginning in the 1930s, became highly popular in the state thereafter, and then in the 1950s and 1960s became integral to the entire United States and to a certain extent the world.
In the 1930s, as part of a great trans-Atlantic migration of European artists and intellectuals to many parts of the United States, a number of European designers and architects such as R. M. Schindler and Richard Neutra took up residence in California because of the creative potential they saw in working in a place that had a benevolent climate and an openness to innovation in pursuit of democratic values. They brought with them a familiarity with the Bauhaus movement and its emphasis on use of materials new to design such as glass and aluminum that could be assembled to express mass accessibility and commonality that transcended national and class barriers.
Already present in California at the time were other new ideas about architecture and design that had come from outside the state and also had the potential to spur regional innovation, including the popularity of bungalows in residential construction and the architectural creations of Frank Lloyd Wright with their fusions of motifs from the English Arts and Crafts Movement, East Asia and ancient Latin America.
All of these developments blended together in what soon came to be called “The California Look,” characterized by vibrant colors, simple elements, and a strong interest in domestic architecture that was characterized by rectangularity, drama, innovative perspectives, and use of glass walls to minimize the visual separation between indoors and outdoors.
Even in the economically difficult decade of the 1930s, there was a large mass market for design and architecture based on these ideas because so many people migrated to California seeking employment in industries such as oil, agriculture, and construction of retirement communities that were relatively insulated from national economic trends. The market grew even larger because of the great population shift to California stimulated by the defense-based economic upswing of the Second World War and then the Cold War from 1945 on.
Another influence upon architecture and design from the 1940s on was defense-related development of new materials such as plywood and fiberglass, and a greatly increased capacity to undertake rapid construction of entire residential areas using large-scale construction strategies refined during the 1940s.
In this environment, a new wave of visual pioneers appeared, integrating “The California Look” into an ever-widening range of venues.
In home design, the work of architects such as Richard Neutra, William Wurster, and Gregory Ain, and housing tract developers like Joseph Eichler became highly influential.
In furniture design, there were highly influential innovators such as the St. Louis-born Charles Eames who moved to Venice, California, and set up his headquarters there.
There were also innovations in household objects.
The “California Look” soon made its way beyond home design into other areas of life. For example, one could see it in movie poster design.
As early as the 1930s, one could find the California look in women’s swimsuit design that combined angularity and use of new fabrics.
In the 1960s the influence of California design began to diminish. By that time it was already part of the fabric of many aspects of American life. But it no longer spread rapidly. Its optimism and daring did not harmonize with the national doubts and tensions of a decade that endured the Kennedy assassination and the start of American involvement in Vietnam. The glut of new home construction in California, with each new real estate development seeming to be a copycat, watered-down version of California design, took away the mystique of originality. And the movement so popular from 1930 to 1965 also had to confront the growing popularity of Post-Modernism, with its revival of more ornate and historically-based visual motifs hearkening back to decades before the 1930s.
But decline of influence is not the same as disappearance. “The California Look” is not as conspicuous as it once was, but it is still powerfully present, and you run across it in the most interesting ways.
For more on The California Look, get a copy of the fascinating and beautiful book Living in A Modern Way: California Design, 1930-1965 (2011), co-published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and MIT Press.