, Newburyport, MA


April 10, 2014

California style

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


“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.

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