Comparative Utopias

chopping block2

I love the patterns that emerge on my chopping block

I think we can all agree that over the past decade, since the publication of Dwell Magazine and the increasing ubiquity of companies like Design Within Reach in the marketplace, mid-century modernism has emerged as the default style for design-savvy Americans. This observation may be obvious to many, but it was driven home for me after my recent whirlwind, two day ‘design research’ trip to Los Angeles, where one day I was hopping around the sun-drenched LA basin in a rented convertible and the next day found me splitting firewood and stocking the woodshed in preparation for the coming rains back at our studio compound on the Sonoma Coast up north. Scanning the sky-scraping peaks of redwoods swaying in offshore gusts between chops, I got to thinking about the stark contrast of climate and culture between Southern and Northern California, and how I’d like to make work that bridges their disparate utopias.

On the first leg of my journey I drove down the PCH to see an exhibition of late career, California-based works by Isamu Noguchi at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, called Noguchi: California Legacy. The show spotlighted Noguchi’s only commercial commission, called ‘California Scenario’, an ambitious sculpture garden realized in the early 1980’s. The project celebrates the state’s geographic diversity and is sited in the midst of a shopping center in nearby Costa Mesa developed by Henry Segerstrom, the lima-bean-baron-turned-real-estate-tycoon who commissioned the work. Consisting of architectural models and plans, large format photographs, project-related ephemera and documentary film footage, the show was ultimately thin on content, probably owing to Noguchi’s obvious reluctance to realize a strictly commercial project.

While the finished work laid the groundwork for the use of integrated sculptural elements, native plantings and ‘natural’ features common to most subsequent retail environments, the feeling was that Noguchi ‘sold out’, and this portion of the exhibition sorely lacked his hand. I can’t help but to think that the aging Noguchi was begrudgingly complicit with the commercial shift in the artworld at the time and knew he would be reaching a new and larger audience outside of museum culture, so the project holds up as a both a prototype and new standard of commercial landscape design where it lacks the iconic punch of his best work.

The show also featured a series of ‘production sculptures’ Noguchi designed in hot-dipped galvanized steel, fabricated by the legendary Gemini G.E.L. during his time in Southern California in the early 1980’s. Coming out of the pre-WW2 avant garde scene, Noguchi was one of the few to consistently blur the lines between design and art, and these sculptures are most interesting because they succeed as both- non-functional production pieces with inherent variability in the process of fabrication; they are ‘designed’ art for potential mass consumption.

gazelle chair

Dan Johnson’s elegant ‘Gazelle Lounge Chair’ (1959) at LACMA’s California Design show

For the second leg of my journey I met up with an old friend to see a show that had just opened at LACMA, called California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way. With hundreds of original objects, prints, textiles and media, the show chronicles the apogee of mid-century modernism through the lens of a new-found American leisure and the uniquely Californian lifestyle that gave it expression. We’ve all seen these works before in various contexts, often in print, but there’s something very compelling about revisiting them in person, in historical context, especially in contrast to today’s gloomy mood and faltering economy. It becomes abundantly clear that America was truly at its best in terms of design just after WW2 and that California’s ‘anything goes’ attitude, tempered by a post-war worldliness and can-do spirit fostered a new way of living that still resonates. Though the style that evokes this era persists, we’ve lost many of the key ingredients that gave it rise- a displaced European intelligentsia, an accessible and thriving manufacturing base, skilled labor, a progressive economy coupled with a sense of industry working towards achieving a democratic common good.

Merging art and industry, craft with machine production, spurred on by an educated and media savvy culture, the pre-war modernism of Europe flourished in California and took root as the official style. To the world-weary vet, California offered a chance to reinvent the world, a glossy utopia of beaches and patios, open-air living and a clean, well-crafted modernism to herald a new standard of comfort and prosperity. This was and remains the future. We had achieved our national goal, and it slowly trickled back East through media, planning and architecture, positing a cool, relaxed sophistication accessible to all.

Enter Northern California and the counterculture of the 1960’s. Following in the footsteps of the Beats a generation earlier, thousands of youth from around the country flocked to San Francisco and nearby rural environs seeking a return to something authentic they felt was lost along the way in the post-war pursuit of the American dream. They rejected consumer culture and went ‘back to the land’, living cooperatively, growing their own food, living ‘off the grid’. While similarly utopian in scope, the Northern California version took root more slowly, trickling back into main stream culture in the form of an environmental ethos related to food, health, community and well-being. While these values prevail in publications like Dwell, and merge seamlessly with the mid-century modernism of SoCal, both are tinged with nostalgia. We are very comfortable looking backwards and picking from the past those things that resonate, but we’re wary about the future; the jury is out about what’s next and what it might look like, especially given the near constant shifts in digital technology.

I’d like my new body of work to respond to these issues and posit something radically new in the process.

sunset illustration

one of many vintage Sunset Magazine illustrations at LACMA’s California Design show