What Is It About Chairs?

December 22, 2011

What is it about chairs?  I once drove past a garage sale in San Francisco and caught a glimpse of a chair. I pulled over and begged the price down to $80. That same chair design, by Luther Conover, is in our California Design exhibition.

The Luther Conover chair, circa 1950.

Last year while doing interviews for our California Design show, I asked designer John Kapel why chairs have such allure. He gave a thoroughly compelling explanation of why chairs are particularly expressive opportunities for a designer.

According to Kapel, a chair is a showpiece, one that is often positioned in a living room such that it can be appreciated from many different angles – unlike, say, a sofa, which typically sits against a wall. He also explained the complex geometry of a chair, its assortment of lines and angles that invite design innovation. And he made the point that, unlike, say, a table, a chair cradles the human body, and reflects our physicality.

The Huntington has a current exhibition, The House that Sam Built, part of Pacific Standard Time, about the work of another chair master, Sam Maloof, and his midcentury cohort, centered around Claremont. In a stroke of exhibition design genius, one gallery features a Maloof chair you can actually sit in.

Yes, you can sit in it. At the Huntington exhibition The House that Sam Built.

When we interviewed textile artist Kay Sekimachi for our own California Design show, she was sitting in a beautiful Sam Maloof rocking chair.

…Completing that circle, the show at the Huntington features some of Kay’s weavings (her husband, Bob Stocksdale, was a close friend of Maloof, and his work appears in all of the PST shows discussed here).

Kay Sekimachi weavings at the Huntington.

After the Huntington, I continued on to the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation to see the house that Sam did build, out in Alta Dena, and another small Pacific Standard Time exhibition, In Words and Wood. A lifelong work in progress, the house is magical – full of Maloof’s furniture, paintings by his wife (and her collection of kochina dolls from her days as an art teacher in New Mexico), more carved wooden bowls by Stocksdale, sculpture by Sekimachi, and ceramics by various Claremont friends and colleagues. I intended to spend an hour and spent three.

Outside the shop at the Maloof Foundation.

One thing leads to another, and for me that day, chairs led to ceramics: from Alta Dena, I went to downtown Pomona to see the American Museum of Ceramic Art in its brand-new location. They have an excellent selection of work by Harrison McIntosh amongst many others (Paul Soldner, Peter Voulkos) in the exhibition Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California 1945-1975.

Ceramic work by Harrison McIntosh with a mural by Millard Sheets in the background at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona.

Our own show at LACMA includes work by McIntosh, who grew up in Los Angeles (in an interview we did with him, available here, he described how he and his parents commissioned a modest house from Richard Neutra in 1939, adding just enough space and light in the garage to allow Harrison a workbench where he began working with terra cotta). In a room full of notable ceramic works at the AMOCA, his sang.  AMOCA is a focused museum, with deep ties to the Claremont arts and crafts scene that included McIntosh and Maloof, as well as Paul Soldner, Millard Sheets, and Rupert Deese. (If you go, I highly recommend a visit to the ceramic studios in the back to see work in progress by a new generation of ceramic artists).

One of the striking things about PST, and particularly the design-related shows, is how small the midcentury SoCal design scene was. You can trace certain relationships amongst friends across shows, and see who shared studio space, taught at the same college, or frequented the same Claremont coffee shop, sharing inspiration and practical advice. Plan a route and trace your own narrative thread here.

At the Sam Maloof house, I heard tell of a visitor from Germany who came to Los Angeles for a month, just to see all of the PST shows. It’s not hard to imagine such a journey. Especially because this is what Southern California looks like in December:

Gardens at the Huntington.

The gardens at the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation.

Amy Heibel


Here Comes the Clipper

August 22, 2011

Last week, the first work of art entered the gallery inside the Resnick Pavilion where California Design 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way” will open on October 1. It’s a 1936 Airstream Clipper, and it traveled from Northern California on this truck.

Because of its size (19 feet long by 7 feet wide), the Airstream had to come into the gallery before any of the pedestals or platforms were constructed.

As a literal house on wheels, the Airstream is the perfect way to open a show about the freedom and flexibility of California living. The Airstream Trailer Company was founded in 1932 by Wally Byam, who incessantly promoted trailer travel. The Clipper has an aluminum frame riveted together in a process similar to that used for aircraft of the time. It got its name from the celebrated Pan Am Clipper airplanes. The design reflects the vogue for streamlining in the interwar period and was justly aerodynamic. The Clipper was the top of the line model and came with all the latest amenities, including a full galley, a built-in screen door, a double-wide closet, and sleeping space for three. If nature called, though, you would have had to find other facilities, as on-board toilets were not available. Airstream marketed the Clipper as “the ultimate picturization of the streamlined age—and America’s newly discovered freedom in the out-of-doors”—trading on the past and the future at the same time.

In order to get into LACMA’s galleries, the Airstream had to be transferred to a tow truck…

…driven to the Resnick Pavilion loading dock…

…and lowered to the ground.

It was then wheeled through the Tim Burton exhibition…

…and set in place.

Bobbye Tigerman, Assistant Curator, Decorative Arts and Design


Inside California Designer’s Homes

June 22, 2011

Recently, we had the fun of shooting video interviews with several designers who are part of our upcoming exhibition California Design 1930—1965: “Living in a Modern Way”. All were active in the postwar period, making everything from furniture to jewelry to enamels and weaving.

Not surprisingly, they live in extraordinary homes. Perhaps the most stunning is that of John Kapel, who designed his house with architect Jerry Weiss. This photo of John sitting in one of his studio chairs (which will be in the exhibition) doesn’t fully capture the beauty of his home, but it does suggest the environment, with its blue tile floor, hand-built wood furniture, and sculpture – all by John. In this photo, he’s talking about the design of the chair, and the subtle geometry that make it visually appealing from various angles.

John Kapel at home in Woodside.

The setting is spectacular as well – nestled into the hills above the San Francisco Bay, in Woodside.

John Kapel's home, from the road.

We also visited ceramist Harrison McIntosh at home high on a hill in Claremont.  Here he is in his studio, at the same workbench he’s used since the 1950s, when he shared the space with Rupert Deese.

Harrison McIntosh in his studio.

The rustic modern house was designed by architect Fred McDowell for Harrison and his wife Marguerite and their young family in the 1950s. Here it is seen from the rear patio.

McIntosh home, rear patio.

Gene Tepper lives and works aboard a houseboat in Sausalito. Here he is on his back deck with Mount Tamalpais in the background.

Gene Tepper at home.

Gene’s studio is down a flight of stairs – below deck, you might say. The surface of the water, which rises and falls with the tide in relation to the windows, creates dancing reflections inside the studio, where Gene has a collection of drawings and paintings. (The piece in our show is a convertible dining table/cocktail table from the 1950s.)

Gene Tepper in his studio.

Just up the hill from Gene, June Schwarcz is still producing in her enamel studio, in the basement of her small but exquisite home overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

June Schwarcz in her studio.

You enter the modestly-sized house through a lush garden…

June's front door.

…and enter an open living space filled with Asian antiques, African sculpture and paintings and objects June has collected over decades of living there. A wall of windows looks out on this:

The view toward Tiburon.

Jeweler Merry Renk lives on a narrow winding street in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood.

Merry Renk's front door.

She bought the house and—as she proudly tells it—paid off her mortgage all by herself in one year (she was widowed when her first husband’s plane went down in World War II) with her teaching income.

Merry at home.

The inside of the cottage is charming…

A wall of family photos and mementos near the kitchen.

…though my favorite part is the clawfoot tub on the back deck overlooking the city.

A tub with a view.

We also made it over to Berkeley, to textile artist  Kay Sekimachi’s home and studio near the university. Here’s Kay sitting in a chair by Sam Maloof, one of the other designers in the show.

Kay Sekimachi in a Sam Maloof chair.

Watching Kay weave on one of her looms is mesmerizing.

Kay at one of her many looms.

Curators Bobbye Tigerman and Wendy Kaplan are hosting a discussion at Dwell on Design this weekend, at 2 pm on Friday. They’ll talk about the exhibition and California’s unique brand of mid-century modern.

Later this summer, we’ll share full video interviews with the designers you see here and more.

Amy Heibel


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