No matter how strong photography’s attraction may be for me, I deeply enjoy mixed media exhibitions.   A combination of beautifully made objects including the functional along with the purely esthetic is an exhibition after my own heart.  This could be because I started out in craft.   Ceramics in Southern California in the 70s drew the artful suburban kids out of our ranch houses, away from the beach and to the tactile pleasures of clay.  There’s no cadre stronger than one born of earth, fire and water and the beer keg parties in the kilns at Paul Soldner’s ceramics department at Scripps College in Claremont were alive with the energy of what was then still a happening crafts movement.  My interests evolved in many directions over the years but my “form follows function” needs were happily met on a recent visit to California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way” at LACMA.

California Design, 1930–1965: "Living in a Modern Way” at LACMA includes a wide range of the craftsmanship that led the way for Americans to incorporate design into their daily lives.

Julius Shulman's 1959 photograph of Pierre Koenig's Bailey House (Case Study House #21, Hollywood Hills, 1958

The sultry Avanti designed by Raymond Loewy in 1961 and manufactured 1963-64 is displayed on the cool white rock often found on rooftops all over the West.

This beautifully mounted exhibition designed by architects Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung and installed in the museum’s new Resnick Pavillion is the first major survey of mid-century modern design manufactured in California.  Featuring over 300 objects including furniture, ceramics, metalwork, fashion, textiles, and industrial and graphic design, the exhibition creates not only a window on cutting edge design of the era, but also a look at California’s role in leading the way.  Apparently most things do happen here 15 minutes before the rest of the country.

A home away from home - designers Ray and Charles Eames' living room, recreated in the museum gallery, down to the last Philodendron leaf.

Much has been written of the installation of Charles and Ray Eames’ living room staged in one end of the museum hall.  What struck me most about this room was not so much the elegance and simplicity of their design but just how much they filled it with clutter.  Every spacious architectural home in the West has been photographed with minimalist furnishings “evoking” the Eames duo, yet they themselves packed their own home with an exceedingly great amount of clutter, knickknacks, folk art and potted plants.  Surrounding themselves with inspirational objects, the spiritual parents of contemporary Southern California lived among the kinds of oddball things gathered on vacations bearing little or no similarity to their own designs.

Wallace "Wally" M. Byam, Clipper, 1936, Auburn Trailer Collection

When I asked my seventeen year-old son what part of the show he liked the most, I thought for sure he’d go for the shiny 1936 Airstream Clipper trailer.  When he immediately responded with his choice of the Polaroid Swinger, I found myself smiling.  Situated in a display case next to Barbie’s Dream House, the small, white molded plastic camera was the lust object equivalent of the iPad in its day.  In its installation at LACMA, it had the added benefit of being presented with a video of one of the television spots made for the Swinger when it was launched in 1965.

Neat, sweet and petite - the Polaroid Swinger.

Ben loves television commercials and often sings their jingles around the house.  The fact that a song like “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” was not created in order to sell fragrance, but originally was a 1967 hit record by Donovan is a difficult reality to convey. He just knows a catchy tune when he hears one.  The LACMA installation included a wonderful white conical audio earpiece, which despite its progressive design, seemed at home when scratchily emitting the pop jingle to accompany the Swinger commercial. It was so popular in my childhood that I was able to conjure up its tune and much of the lyrics even before actually hearing it again at the exhibition.

“Meet the Swinger, the Polaroid Swinger.  It’s more than a camera, it’s almost alive.  Its only nineteen dollars and ninety-five.”  Complete with surf guitar.

A Catherine Deneuve look-alike, a young Ali MacGraw and Gidget goes brunette in Polaroid.

The Polaroid Swinger at the beach in the vintage television ad.

The fact that a stunning young Ali McGraw played the lead in the commercial was lost to me in elementary school. She hadn’t yet had her big film break in Love Story.  For my teenager, she was a gorgeous girl on a beach having fun with her friends and her camera and that song, even with the crackley vintage video was infectious with its ’60s vibe.  The Swinger commercial was a window on what he calls “back then,” meaning any time before life as he knows it.  The commercial took the museum object out of the showcase and into a practical application of how it fit into life and the world, enriching the viewing experience.  The fact that it connected to my son’s life on several levels, including being predecessor to the Tasmanian Devil Polaroid camera I bought him when he was six, brought him deeper meaning.

Tasmanian Devil Polaroid, circa 2000, mouth open in the shooting position.

Upon returning home and doing a little research we found that Ray and Charles Eames also made a short film in 1972 for the Polaroid Corporation detailing the features and wonders of its SX-70 camera.  While the Swinger was geared toward a youthful audience,  this was the camera that became coveted in the art world.  Its gelatin based film emulsion stayed soft for several days, allowing artists such as Lucas Samaras to manipulate a photograph’s surface before it hardened into a fully fixed image.   Samaras’ images, along with Bea Nettles’ Breaking the Rules: A Photo Media Cookbook contributed to stretching the boundaries of what photography could be in the pre-computer era and Polaroid was a contributing force.

Ray Eames with the SX-70 in the studio

The SX-70 was like the Swinger for professionals, which made the educational film all the more interesting due to both the design genius of Ray and Charles Eames and because the camera was just so progressive in its day.  In the last decade, the evolution of photographic technology has felt as though it has turned on a dime, with digital leaving film in the dust.  Watching “SX70” I got a strong sense of the sophistication of the technology at that time and it struck me that the medium has been on more of a continuum than we might often think.  Ever in flux, always in development, photography has always been a work in progress.

A scene from SX-70.

In terms of pure visual appeal, SX70 (the film) reeks of early ’70s cool from the original Elmer Bernstein pop score to the hip scientific animations of Richard Spies.  I would not have been surprised at all to see Ali McGraw pop in again with someone in a sports car, say Steve McQueen for instance.   Which brings me to the Eames’ intriguing film crew and it’s here that I fall down a bit of a rabbit hole.   The film featured Philip Morrison, one of the youngest physicists to work on the Manhattan Project, who later became a leading voice in the drive to halt the use of nuclear weapons.  Also listed in the credits were Eames’ late furniture maker, turned steampunk prop maker Parke Meek, and the studio’s still photographer Dick Donges who later formed the design firm of Neuhart Donges Neuhart.  Also listed in the credits is photographer Peggy Gruen, daughter of Victor Gruen and Elsie Krummeck commonly known as the architects who created the shopping mall among other things.

This photo of Barton's Barbonnierre designed by Elsie Krummeck and Victor Gruen (with Alvin Lustig as graphics consultant), shows Gruen's chandeliers, one of which is at LACMA.

The idea that these masters of design, the Eames, Gruen and Krummeck were likely either friends or colleagues including a daughter in a film project, fascinates me.  Elsie Krummeck’s ceramic planters were on display about 20 feet from the Polaroid Swinger and Victor Gruen’s whimsical metal chandelier, part of an overall design he and Krummeck created for the fabulous Barton’s Barbonnierre, were just a few steps away.  In my imagination, the reconstructed living room was where the Eames shared cocktails and talked shop with Gruen and Krummeck.  Throughout the California Design exhibition there were similarly linked artists in furniture and fabric design, pottery, photography, metals and graphics.  Friends and colleagues who made wonderful things and inspired each other to do the same and forged the way we see the modern world.

It’s not only who you know, it’s what you know and what you make.  It’s more than a camera it’s almost alive.


California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way” is open through June 3, 2012 at LACMA.

A wonderful book accompanies the exhibition and is available through LACMA’s bookstore and in digital form at MIT Press

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