The Golden State — California — is the inspired theme of a new exhibition at the Design Museum in Kensington. The West Coast state’s countless cutting-edge design innovations have changed the way we live. Yet surprisingly, this is the first show to acknowledge their impact.
“There have been many shows about West Coast mid-century design,” says co-curator Justin McQuirk. “But this is the first to examine California’s global reach in many areas of design.”
California is Hollywood film’s birthplace and it was here that much mid-century, light-filled modern architecture was pioneered. The internet was first developed in California and hi-tech giants Apple, Facebook and Twitter are headquartered in Silicon Valley today.
The entrepreneurial, individualistic spirit of Californians can be traced back to the settlers who ventured as far as the Pacific Ocean, as well as to the 1848 Gold Rush. But the show, California: Designing Freedom, charts its design history since the Sixties.
That decade saw California’s eco-conscious hippy counterculture raise concerns about the environment and experiment with self-build architecture far from the polluted cities. One of its heroes was architect Buckminster Fuller, a champion of solar and wind energy, whose transparent geodesic domes brought people into closer contact with nature.
The show features 200 objects, among them a Fuller dome, surfboards, psychedelic posters, original artwork for classic 1982 movie Blade Runner, the 1984 Apple Mac — the world’s first personal computer — and Google’s self-driving car. Apple has sold over a billion iPhones but just as the state is a hi-tech powerhouse, so its mid-century design heritage is perennially appealing.
It evokes an easy, laid-back lifestyle. Furniture created by West Coast designers was clean-lined and contemporary yet comfortable and colourful. They favoured rounded shapes inspired by nature and organic forms. Californian modernist architecture, too, aimed to connect with the great outdoors. Take Pierre Koenig’s glass-fronted Stahl House, built high in the lush Hollywood Hills and famously photographed by Julius Shulman in the Sixties.
LA-based husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames produced furniture in organic, sculptural shapes. Their home was modern yet cosy with wood-lined walls, a profusion of plants, rugs, cushions and exotic ornaments bought on their travels. They weren't averse to homely clutter, and their taste still influences interiors today.
John Lewis’s colourful new Palm Springs collection, named after the Californian city where mid-century architecture thrived, channels this spirit. The 300 pieces, including furniture, lighting and rugs, available from late summer, demonstrate the style’s enduring popularity. The range’s many stylised plant and animal motifs, including owl-shaped vases, echo the mid-century period’s love of nature.
“Soft, rounded shapes are presented in dark wood, glass and brass, while the textiles nod to the vibrant colour, plants and environment of the Palm Springs region,” says Philippa Prinsloo, head of design at John Lewis.
The informal vibe has also inspired Martin Waller, founder of Andrew Martin, which stocks California-style Truman armless sofas while Atkin and Thyme’s Californian-style furniture includes the Newton sideboard, made in mango wood with brass-plated handles.
American designer Jonathan Adler’s L-shaped Malibu sofa evokes Hollywood glamour, while his funky needlepoint cushion spelling out “San Francisco” recalls Sixties flower power. Adler’s website also stocks Slim Aarons’ powder blue-tinted photo of The Beverly Hills Hotel.
The Design Museum Shop is another source of Californian-themed products, many inspired by the state’s lush vegetation, including Finest Imagery coasters shaped like cheese plant leaves, and Arper’s outdoor Leaf chair. Other items tap into California’s original design heritage, including Eames chairs and Buckminster Fuller-style domes.
- California: Designing Freedom, until October 15, Design Museum, Kensington High Street, W8