Beyond Buildings

 

Surfing through the Modern World: Pacific Standard Time in Los Angeles

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In California, nature and humans have conspired to create one of the most extraordinary environments ever. It is not always a beautiful or good place–nature shakes things up with earthquakes, droughts, floods, and plagues of pests of almost biblical proportions, and humans have contributed sprawl, pollution, and social iniquity. It is, however, even in its ugliness and injustice, its violence and its inhuman scale, a place of great beauty, with exhilarating vistas that are both natural and of a social kind.

 

Now over seventy different institutions and galleries around Southern California are celebrating the art that has sought to represent this place, especially in the era after the Second World War. Called Pacific Standard Time (PST), it was funded by the Getty and will encompass almost 170 events by the time it closes next spring. It was during the period on which PST focuses that the utopian dreams that have fueled the State’s growth brought millions to its beaches, valleys, and deserts, and that a truly Californian culture took shape.

 

I tried to see as many of the shows as possible during a brief trip to Los Angeles last weekend. One of the first I took in was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Living in a Modern Way, which will be up through March 25 of next year. I walked through with the exhibition’s designers, Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, and had the pleasure of sharing their delight at the hundreds of objects curator Wendy Kaplan and her team had assembled.

 

The display itself represents the best California design: an open wave made of metal studs energizes the staid environments of the Renzo Piano-designed Resnick Pavilion, with objects floating on and above simple, white platforms. My favorite touch is the jewelry, displayed in little bubbles on a high table. Towards the far end of the gallery, a mint-condition Avanti, designed by Raymond Loewy for Studebaker in 1961, points the way towards a reconstruction, in the best Hollywood stage set tradition, of the Eames House.

 

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The show makes the argument for living in Southern California as inhabiting a set: it is a thin artifice, created by a great deal of technology, floating over a landscape from which it does not have to close itself off, or which it pretends to incorporate, setting the scene for a new way of living. That all this design might hide how things are made, or the costs of making them, or the fact that there are people out there who could not afford this new American Dream, is the price of the completeness and the optimism of the vision.

 

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The strength of Living in a Modern Way is its concentration on that domestic set, and how everything from the furniture in the houses (an amazing stereo cabinet Craig Ellwhood designed for the 1961-1963 Rosen House, for instance), the crockery, and even the clothes (an Addie Masters “Hostess pajamas” outfit from 1940) all contributed to that play of modern manners. They were not integrated in the manner that Henri van der Velde had proposed at the Bauhaus, but rather were are all related attempts to show how technology could transform nature into an open, free, and relaxed space through which you could go surfing.

 

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The delights of this exhibition are myriad, from the reaffirmation of the importance of the Case Study program and everything it entailed, the graphics of Alvin Lustig, the bathing suits of Rudi Gernreich, the ceramics of Edith Heath, he jewelry of Margaret de Patta, or the landscapes of Tommy Church, to the emphasis on lesser known figures such as Greta Grossman and wonderful objects such as a streamlined 1935 Ice Gun (put the cubes in one side and get crunched coldness out the nozzle), an amazing 1939 desk by Kem Weber, or the two-piece Atomic Dress by Gilbert Adrian.

 

The importance and the beauty of mid-century modern design is by now something most of us recognize. Living in a Modern Way lets us see why and how it happened, how it all worked together, and how it proposed a whole new way of living. It is a good place to start if you want to understand Pacific Standard Time, about which there's more to come later.

 

 
 

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.