, Newburyport, MA

April 10, 2014

California style

Peabody Essex Museum showcases designs of '30s to '60s

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — Visitors entering the Peabody Essex Museum these days may feel like they’re pulling onto a freeway.

They will be greeted inside by the turquoise, fiberglass body of a Studebaker Avanti, a sleek car created in 1963 by industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

The traffic picks up speed in the atrium, where a shiny aluminum Airstream Clipper trailer from the 1930s heads for the museum’s newest exhibit.

“There is no better introduction to California modern than the Airstream trailer in the atrium,” said Wendy Kaplan, head of decorative arts and design at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“It is the emblem of the good life in California, representing the freedom and mobility made possible by advances in technology and by new materials, packaged in a streamlined, modern design.”

The trailer and car are two of 250 objects in “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way,” which Kaplan co-curated for its original 2011 opening at the Los Angeles museum.

The period it covers saw the transformation of California from a place to live into a way of life, one that carried far beyond the state’s boundaries.

The vehicles of that ideal were not only automobiles but also the architecture, ceramics, jewelry, fashions and household objects that were created in the Golden State.

“There was less emphasis on tradition,” said Austen Bailly, curator of American art at PEM, and formerly on the staff at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “These designers designed with comfort and vibrant color, even fun, in mind, and they turned to Asia, Europe and Latin America for design sources.”

The show also documents the conditions that made the creation of all these consumer items possible. These included a population explosion in the 1920s that created demand for the new objects and was driven in part by opportunity.

“From agriculture to the movies to oil, California didn’t suffer quite as much from the ravages of the American Depression,” Kaplan said. “I’m sure you all read ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ when you were in high school, and why people would come to California.”

Some of those new Californians included a wave of architects and designers from Europe, many of whom had been trained in the modern style of Bauhaus. They preferred spare function to ornamentation but moderated their severity as they absorbed local influences.

“That would mean more humanistic, sort of a softer modernism,” Kaplan said. “There was more of an embrace of color — with influences from Mexico and Mexican cultures, which you can see in some of the pottery. It’s a very specific, regional expression.”

World War II provided the final boost to this revolution by providing not only new technologies and materials, but also the factories to turn them into finished products.

A good example of the war’s impact is an early version of a molded plywood chair, in a design we now take for granted, which was created in 1943 by husband and wife Charles and Ray Eames, along with architect Eero Saarinen.

“It’s so ergonomically designed, it’s really comfortable, and the idea was you would celebrate ordinary materials,” Kaplan said.

The process of molding plywood predated the war, but the Eameses perfected their techniques by creating leg splints for the military.

The chair embodies one of the key aspects of California design, in its marriage of unique design with techniques of mass production.

This combination was expressed by Charles Eames in a phrase that Kaplan said is one of her favorites and sums up the values of California design: “The best, for the most, for the least.”

That expression also applied to architecture of that era, with plans for a new type of home. A series of case-study houses, published in the pages of Arts & Architecture magazine, allowed architects to imagine new structures to suit the climate of California.

The modular design of these homes gave them a sense of strength, which was enhanced by the modern materials used in their construction, but also made them feel experimental and casual. These feelings were enhanced by the indoor-outdoor designs, with floor-to-ceiling windows and open floor plans, that created a sense of continuity between living rooms, patios and the surrounding environment.

These are explored in the exhibit through photographs, architectural plans and videos, and in all the items created to furnish them — but also in the layout of the exhibit.

“I think we’ve translated the exhibition to our spaces in an exciting way, subtly conveying the look and feel of mid-20th-century California in our galleries,” Bailly said. “A particular strength of our presentation is the opportunity to see so many of these objects from all sides and from unique vantage points.”


What: “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way”

When: Through July 6

Where: Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem

How much: $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, $10 for students

More information: 866-745-1876 or