Atomic Designs

An exhibition of post-war Californian design

poster for California Design, 1930-1965:

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

at The National Art Center, Tokyo
in the Roppongi, Nogizaka area
This event has ended - (2013-03-20 - 2013-06-03)

In Reviews by Yuma Tanaka 2013-04-27

Buff, Straub & Hensman (1955-1961, later Buff, Hensman and Associates), 'Recreation Pavilion, Mirman House', Arcadia (1958)

Only rarely does one encounter an exhibit that succeeds in showcasing an entire culture. From the gleaming aerodynamic contours of the Airstream trailer parked in the entrance, to the iconic interior décor designs of Weber and the Eamses,”California Design, 1930 – 1965: “Living in a Modern Way”” brings the happy-go-lucky ambiance of the mid-century West Coast ethos straight to Roppongi’s The National Art Center, Tokyo. The exhibit combines over 250 objects from a myriad of mediums to tell the story of a flourishing material culture fostered by a liberal and hospitable climate.

A spinoff of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exposition of the same title, this exhibition is the culmination of a five-year research effort to define the aestheticism inherent to the era. The result is a comprehensive and expository exhibition that focuses as much on the generation’s sociocultural context as it does on its artistic value. Divided into four sections—shaping, making, living, and selling—each segment explores mid-century California in a different light. Visitors start their journey in the “shaping” section, where said aluminum trailer and some epochal interior décor articles reveal how a surge of denizens and émigrés met new technology and cultural liberalism with intrepid experimentation and a thirst for opulence that was the driving force of its unique, optimistic modernism. The sections that follow shed light on how the Californian lifestyle came to symbolize post-war American prosperity through its ceaseless pursuit of an idealized lifestyle.

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 47 x 16 in. (175.3 x 119.4 x 40.6 cm)

The exhibit effectively utilizes specific artifacts from the age to showcase how different concepts influenced California’s ideological definition of modern living. Many of the streamlined appliances and interior décor items draw from a fascination towards the advent of aerodynamic technologies and other wartime-driven innovations. Husband and wife virtuosos Charles and Ray Eames gained international recognition with their innovative use of modernistic materials and technologies. The LAR (Low Lounge Chair) was one of the first attempts at using fiberglass (frequently used during the war as aircraft building material) in interior décor, and remains to this day the masterpiece of Eames’ design. The streamlined contours of the sun-orange parchment fiberglass basin propped on thin metal rods, at merely 10 pounds, is one of the lightest in Eames design, achieving comfort in design as well as versatility; attributes that the designers pursued throughout their careers. In fact, their generation did not fail to embrace even the most ominous of cold-war nuclear threats, which in turn inspired an outburst of atomic and rocket imagery shaping a benign view on a topic of possibly calamitous consequences. The air was of sheer optimism in an age when society was blessed with new technology after another and the vigor of a blooming economy.

Californian modern design culminated in the creation of the Case Study Houses, an experimental study of inexpensive and modern residential architecture commissioned by the canonical LA-based Arts & Architecture magazine from 1945 through 1964. These 36 houses are in a sense the embodiment of a quintessential modern lifestyle as conceptualized by mid-century Californian culture. Case Study Houses were proposed and drafted by architectural pillars such as Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood, each design being unique in its aesthetics but sharing a common ideology. A modest section of the exhibit is dedicated to introducing these homes from various perspectives.

Effectively displaying a “culture” (albeit one that is as varied and free-spirited as the one in question) within the boundaries of a conventional museum arena proved to be a challenge. For the first time in the museum’s history, NACT employed architect Ryuji Nakamura to design an exhibit space appropriate for the theme. The outlay of the show blends the boundaries between the four segments, just as California modern design refused to clearly distinguish its living quarters with the outside atmosphere. Guests are encouraged to relax in a Kapel chair while viewing rare television footage from the era. With a little bit of imagination, the exhibit allows its visitors a first hand experience of living the culture by surrounding themselves with all things Californian.

As curator Wendy Kaplan stated on the topic of Californian modernism, the culture was indeed not “a single aesthetic but a loose, albeit clearly recognizable group of ideas.” The phrase “Californian” is loaded language. While a Japanese audience may at first consider it synonymous to Hollywood glamor, a walk through the exhibit is bound to open minds to a deeper level of understanding towards the social and cultural foundations that influenced the utopic mindset that is associated with the term with today.

Kem Weber (b. Germany, 1889-1963, active Los Angeles), 'Desk and chair' (c. 1938). Exhibited at the Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939. Satinwood, primavera, chrome, aluminum, resin, leather (replaced). Desk: 30 1/4 x 60 x 30 in. (76.8 x 152.4 x 76.2 cm)

Yuma Tanaka

Yuma Tanaka. Yuma is an aspiring writer living in Tokyo (for the time being). Having spent his youth equally in New York, Tokyo, and Washington D.C., he finds himself amidst a perpetual identity crisis. With an anticipated degree in politics, work experience in private equity, an interest in fine arts and a passion for fiction writing, his biographical mumbo-jumbo is enough to drive even the most experienced of headhunters gaga. » See other writings


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