Mid-Century Design at Mid-Century Prices

One of the most frequent questions that I’ve gotten from visitors to the California Design exhibition is “where did you find all this stuff?” In addition to the chairs, tables, textiles, and ceramics that you’d expect to see in a design exhibition, you’ll also find some rather offbeat things—a 1930s ice gun, his-and-hers lobster swimsuits, and a roadside barricade light used in countless highway construction sites.

Opco Company, Ice Gun, c. 1935, Decorative Arts and Design Acquisition Fund and Decorative Arts and Design Council Fund, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Mary Ann DeWeese for Catalina Sportswear, California Lobster Bikini, Man’s Shirt and Trunks, 1949, collection of Esther Ginsberg/Golyester Antiques, © 2011 The Warnaco Group, Inc., all rights reserved, for Authentic Fitness Corp., Catalina Sportswear, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Henry C. Keck for Keck-Craig Associates, Roadside barricade light, c. 1963, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

The answer to the baffling question of how we located all the objects is that we looked pretty much everywhere. Many were already in LACMA’s permanent collection. To find the rest, we visited dozens of private collectors, dealers, and auctioneers and asked our colleagues in museums across the country about what they had in their galleries and tucked away in storage. But some of our proudest (and most affordable) finds came from visits to antique stores and that virtual shopping wonderland, eBay.

We found the Burroughs Manufacturing Corporation plastic pitcher at a Dallas antique mall ($7.27). The company’s proprietor Clarence Burroughs patented the design in 1948 and put it into production along with a wide array of handy molded plastic objects such as salt and pepper shakers, bread boxes, and wastepaper baskets.

Charles M. Burroughs for Burroughs Manufacturing Corporation, pitcher, c. 1948, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

We found pristine orange crate labels in a flea market in San Juan Capistrano (2 for $26). The imagery of agricultural bounty was as characteristic of California as the brightly colored, dynamic designs.

Dario de Julio for Western Lithography Company, Red Circle orange-crate label for McDermont Fruit Company, c. 1938, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Ponca orange-crate label for Vandalia Packing Association, c. 1930s, photo © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

And the Henry Dreyfuss Swinger Polaroid camera was an eBay victory at $9.99 for the camera and its original box and instruction booklet (we could have gotten the camera alone for a mere penny, but we’re suckers for vintage packaging).

Henry Dreyfuss and James M. Conner for Polaroid Corporation, The Swinger, Land camera model 20, 1965, Decorative Arts and Design Council Fund

We’re not bragging about our bargain finds just to make you jealous. The real message here is that collecting design is not reserved for the rarefied few. While many areas are of art out of reach except to the phenomenally rich, it’s possible to enter the collecting field at nearly any level. Find something that fascinates you, learn by looking closely, ask lots of questions, and don’t be afraid to pass on a piece that doesn’t meet your rigorous standards.

With this behind-the-scenes glimpse, go forth into this shopping season and seek out your own California design treasures. When you find something that resembles what you saw in the show (or if you can’t make it to the show, check out highlights in the free mobile app), post it to the California Design Flickr feed and share it with us.

Remember, go green and buy antiques!

Bobbye Tigerman. Assistant Curator, Decorative Arts and Design

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