California Design: how it changed the way we live

Charles & Ray Eames: Storage Unit

California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way
Auckland Art Gallery
Until September 29

One of the most important influences on design and the way the world looks has been the artists and designers, film makers and stylists who worked in California in the middle of last century.

California Design, 1930-1965, shows how this phenomenon occurred. It  is the first major study of California mid-century modern design and features more than 300 objects – furniture, ceramics, metalwork, fashion and textiles, and industrial and graphic design – examining the US state’s role in shaping the material culture of America and the world.

Organised into four thematics, the exhibition provides an outline of how design flourished in the state, transforming a culture.

The huge changes which occurred are illustrated by two aerial photographs of central Los Angeles. In a 1922 photo there are a dozen buildings at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, while a similar image from 1930 shows thousands of buildings extending in all directions to the horizon.

California experienced an unprecedented boom in the 1930s. In search of employment, millions of people flocked to the state, all needing houses and home wares. 

In the first section of the exhibition is the asymmetric desk designed by Kem Weber, which shows the way in which European design infiltrated the US, adapting to a more dynamic design approach. 

Weber created furniture and interiors for shops, hotels and homes, and invented the concept of "store-within-a-store" shopping. It was Weber, too, who was the main architect of California’s Walt Disney Studios.

There are several examples of the new wave of architecture which took root in California with designs by architects such as Richard Neutra with his 1935 house for the film director Josef von Sternberg.

Made of thin-gauge steel, it has much in common with the design elements associated with the aerospace industry – smooth lines, metals and glass.

There is also an image of the Weston Havens House designed by Harwell Hamilton Harris which looks like an interior of one of the Group Architects houses, showing how the Californian influence spread across the Pacific.

Modernist designers Charles and Ray Eames are almost synonymous with California design and several of their works are in the show, including their early moulded plywood chairs.

Here again can be see the way in which New Zealand designers responded to the same ideas and the Eames chair can be compared with Garth Chester’s design of the Curvesse chair in 1947.

Another section of the show illustrates the way in which creativity was linked to commerce. Designers and architects from Europe combined the styles of their homelands with California’s developing aesthetic.

Era of mass production
So Swedish minimalism and elements of art deco and art nouveau all merge into a new design aesthetic and the designer/craftsmen concept expands into the era of mass production.

Greta Magnusson Grossman amalgamated her Swedish approach to design with the panache of her new home. Her "grasshopper" floor lamp was one of the first lamp designs to feature bullet-shaped, directional, glare-free shades, illustrating how craft makers responded to modernism.

Austrian-born couple Gertrud and Otto Natzler collaborated in life and work. Gertrud hand threw more than 25,000 pots and Otto invented several thousand glazes. Her pots are elegant, thin-walled bowls and vases; his glazes are volcanic and crystalline, referencing the contemporary city of Los Angeles and nearby desert.

Hungarian Paul László was once called the "rich man’s architect". His interiors were luxurious enough for Ronald Reagan, the Vanderbilts and Barbara Hutton.

László maintained design control over every aspect of their design and he was also influenced by artists like Hans Arp and Joan Miró as can be seen in his colourful biomorphic textile designs used for curtaining and upholstery.

The "Living" sections of this exhibition explores the interiors mid-century, modern Californian home with architectural drawings.

Responding to California’s relaxed attitude and climate, modernists blurred the divide between indoor and outdoor living in their architectural and product design. The Californian Case Study Houses are some of the most influential legacies of this aesthetic.

Sponsored by Arts and Architecture magazine as an experiment in economical post-war housing, the Case Study Houses included designs by Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen.

These prototype dwellings, intended to help returned servicemen and women, used materials and techniques developed during World War II.

Levi Strauss & Co
California’s major contribution to American fashion during this period was comfortable, stylish attire – clothes that put ease, flexibility and flair first. Levi Strauss & Co were a major influence changing the way Californians dressed with their casual clothing for work and leisure.

The enduring Levi’s 501 jeans and rodeo-themed shirts were perfect lounging apparel, while for pool party hostesses the bright orange pants and top offered a more formal look for a climate that encouraged a sexy, laid-back style.

The beaches of California inspired fashion, too. Sportswear design, including swimsuits such as Mary Ann DeWeese’s stars-and-stripes pattern, found keen buyers and Hollywood stars who were only too ready to promote fashion and fitness.

As America moved into the 1960s, Southern California’s surf culture received a boost from the popularity of movies including Gidget (1959) and Surfer Girl (1963).

Scrambling to join the craze, people snapped up new, light-weight surf boards, like the clean-lined Hobie, to help live out their favourite Beach Boys’ lyric.

While there is no mention of Madmen in the show (they are a New York construct), the exhibition highlights how the advertising industry created collaborations between commerce and art.

Museums also played a role teaming up with merchants and magazines. Magazines formed alliances with building and furniture businesses, and Hollywood kept projecting the accoutrements of an ideal life into moviegoers’ minds.

Carlos Diniz translated the technical drawings of architects into alluring images that helped potential clients place themselves in the frame. Photography performed a similar function. These images, together with stories that expounded the virtues of living in a modern way, had a major impact on the way Californians lived.

Arts and Architecture – part style manual, part manifesto – became the most important publication for the dissemination of California modernism, featuring the work of Californian graphic artists on its covers. Magazines with a broader appeal than Arts and Architecture promoted the state as the capital of modern design.

Image credit
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)
LACMA, Gift of Mr. Sid Avery and Mr. James Corcoran
© 2011 Eames Office LLC (; © Herman Miller, Inc. Photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA.


Got a question about this story? Leave it in Comments & Questions below.

This article is tagged with the following keywords. Find out more about MyNBR Tags

Comments & Questions

Commenter icon key: Subscriber Verified

Post New comment or question

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

NZ Market Snapshot


Sym Price Change
USD 0.7166 -0.0008 -0.11%
AUD 0.9121 -0.0022 -0.24%
EUR 0.6089 -0.0007 -0.11%
GBP 0.5429 -0.0010 -0.18%
HKD 5.5950 -0.0061 -0.11%
JPY 80.3100 -0.2110 -0.26%


Commodity Price Change Time
Gold Index 1284.9 -9.930 2017-10-17T00:
Oil Brent 57.9 0.040 2017-10-17T00:
Oil Nymex 51.9 0.010 2017-10-17T00:
Silver Index 17.0 -0.328 2017-10-17T00:


Symbol Open High Last %
NZX 50 8112.1 8131.5 8112.1 0.04%
NASDAQ 6621.4 6628.6 6624.0 -0.01%
DAX 12995.8 13034.4 13003.7 -0.07%
DJI 22952.4 23002.2 22957.0 0.18%
FTSE 7527.0 7550.4 7527.0 -0.14%
HKSE 28636.2 28729.3 28697.5 -0.00%
NI225 21374.7 21400.6 21336.1 0.10%
ASX 5889.6 5906.1 5889.6 0.12%