The Untold History of Design at LACMA

February 23, 2012

Around 1957, the Art Division of the Los Angeles County Museum (then located downtown in Exposition Park), launched a little-known design and typography program that utterly transformed the museum’s image. The program was spearheaded by James H. Elliott, who arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1956 as Assistant Chief Curator of Art, after a stint at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Elliott firmly believed that the museum’s printed material (its newsletters, exhibition announcements, books, and more) should reflect an awareness of contemporary design and hired the leading graphic designers in the city to produce the museum’s print identity. In the 1950s, the Walker in Minneapolis was, along with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the premiere venue for the display of contemporary design (and is still a leader in the field), and Elliott probably formulated his ideas about design while working there. Elliott moved in LA art circles and many of the designers that he asked to participate in the program, such as Fred Usher, Marion Sampler, and Allen Porter, were friends.

Here is a sampling of the many commissions that were part of the program:

Frederick A. Usher, Jr., Museum Association Quarterly cover, summer 1958

Allen Porter, Catalogue cover for Artists of Los Angeles and Vicinity exhibition, 1958

Marion Sampler, Invitation for European Art Today 35 Painters and Sculptors exhibition opening, 1959

Deborah Sussman, Catalogue cover for Six More exhibition, 1963

One of the most prolific participants in the program was graphic designer Lou Danziger, who was responsible for LACMA’s monthly calendar for decades and consulted on the museum’s design projects until 1980.

Louis Danziger, Invitation for Four Abstract Classicists and New American Prints—1959 exhibition opening, 1959

Louis Danziger, Poster for New York School: The First Generation exhibition, 1965

Louis Danziger, Exhibition catalogue for Art in Los Angeles: Seventeen Artists in the Sixties, 1981

In addition to these projects, Lou designed landmark catalogues, including ones for the exhibitions Art Treasures of Japan (1965) and Art and Technology (1970). Lou recalls that the program started with the need for a trademark for Museum Associates, the museum’s parent organization, and Elliott commissioned Frederick A. Usher, Jr. for the job. In subsequent years, Lou, James Elliott, and later, curators Henry Hopkins and Bill Osmun met weekly on Wednesday mornings to identify and develop the museum’s design projects. You can hear Lou talk about his role in the world of mid-century California design, and learn about the making of his New York School exhibition poster here (the complete interview is available by downloading the free California Design app).

The New York School poster is on view in the California Design exhibition now and Lou will be at LACMA on Friday, February 24 to participate in a panel discussion called “Connections: Architecture and Design in Los Angeles at Mid-century,” along with fellow California designer Gere Kavanaugh and architect Ray Kappe. They will discuss the interconnected nature of the post-World War II Los Angeles design community. The panel is part of a larger, two-day symposium about California design which will feature several talks by renowned scholars and an evening keynote panel with artists Jorge Pardo, Pae White, and Jim Isermann about the legacy of mid-century California design on contemporary art and architecture.

Bobbye Tigerman, Assistant Curator, Decorative Arts and Design

Mid-Century Design at Mid-Century Prices

November 28, 2011

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

Barbie Doll: An Icon of California Design

November 15, 2011

Some of the objects in California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way” were available for purchase for as little as $3 when they were new, including an original 1959 Barbie doll and her boyfriend, Ken, introduced in 1961. A popular icon and a lightning bolt of cultural relevance, Barbie was marketed as a “Teenage Fashion Model” doll and an aspirational toy with clothes for any occasion.

LACMA’s Barbie and Ken dolls are gifts of Mattel, Inc., sponsor of California Design. The postwar California success story of Mattel and the design and salesmanship behind the iconic Barbie brand pairs perfectly with the story of innovation inCalifornia consumer goods that is a theme of the exhibition. Barbie embodies the carefree confidence and utter versatility that characterized postwar California. (You can also take  Barbie home with you after seeing the exhibition.)

Formed in 1945 by Harold Matson (Matt) and Elliot (El) and Ruth Handler in a Los Angeles garage, Mattel initially manufactured picture frames but soon found success making toys. Ruth, co-founder and later president of Mattel, had long wanted to create an adult, three-dimensional fashion doll onto which a child “could project her own dreams of the future.” (This was in contrast with the typical baby doll.) The inspiration for Barbie doll came as Ruth watched her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls. Mattel began to develop the design for Barbie with a team led by Jack Ryan, a former missile designer for Raytheon. Barbie doll  debuted at the New York Toy Fair in 1959.


Mattel, Inc., Barbie Teen Age Fashion Model (Barbie #1), 1959, gift of Mattel, Inc.


With cat-eye sunglasses in her vinyl hand, blonde ponytail, and high heels, Barbie exudes modern California style and Hollywood glamour. She models the iconic and sophisticated black-and-white striped jersey swimsuit, black mule shoes, and gold hoop earrings with which she was originally sold. The original Barbie doll also came with a display pedestal with two prongs that inserted into holes in her feet (a feature only seen on the #1 Barbie.

Mattel, Inc., Ken doll, 1961, gift of Mattel, Inc.

Ken doll was introduced in 1961 in response to popular demand for a male companion for Barbie (they have never officially wed despite countless trips to the altar in wedding finery). A rare example with flocked hair (a short-lived design detail because it rubbed off when exposed to water), this Ken doll is also ready for the beach in his red swim trunks, cork sandals, and yellow terry cloth towel.

Barbie doll’s wardrobe was designed by Charlotte Johnson, a freelance fashion designer and teacher at Chouinard Art Institute before she became the director of Barbie wardrobe from 1957 to 1980. Each doll came with a catalogue of fashions that the young consumer could purchase separately. Elliot Handler described this as the “razor and razor blade” marketing strategy, which could turn the $3 doll into a major investment: “You get hooked on one and you have to buy the other. Buy the doll and then you have to buy the clothes.”

The first Barbie commercial premiered on television during The Mickey Mouse Club, which had proven to be a successful advertising platform for Mattel. By summer, she was a sensation; she went on to become the world’s bestselling doll.

Jennifer Munro Miller, Research Assistant, Decorative Arts and Design

Installing California Design: Q&A with Architects Hodgetts + Fung

September 29, 2011

For the ambitious installation of California Design, 1930–1965LACMA sought out the talents of architects Hodgetts + FungWe asked Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung about their design for the show, which is on view now for members and opens to the public on Saturday.

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

What was your inspiration for the exhibition design?
The unique look pioneered by California’s modern designers was a direct inspiration for our design. Starting with a curvilinear, biomorphic shape that is a contemporary incarnation of the principles first espoused by Arts and Architecture magazine, the installation is designed to create a powerful sense of solid and void, and to lead the visitor on an exciting, smart journey through the history of California design.

This is definitely not a typical, art-historical survey of greatest hits, but a treasure trove of seminal design masterpieces that will resonate with everyone who appreciates the lithe, sensuous lines of contemporary design.  Those lines are echoed in the helical construction which soars through the Resnick Pavilion to gather groups of costumes, furnishings, and printed matter into micro-environments which refine and focus the collection. Visitors will be treated to a narrative guided by the rhythm of the helix and propelled by the energy of the curators’ ideas about various aspects of California design history as seen through the lens of those who designed it, made it, and ultimately sold it.

Installation view of Eames Living Room in the Resnick Pavilion. Installation made possible by a generous contribution from Martha and Bruce Karsh

Can you tell us more about the re-creation of the Eames living room?
We worked directly with the Eames family to bring to life the incredible collection of crafts, folk art, and found ephemera which Charles and Ray Eames collected over their lifetimes. They are installed in their exact locations in a full-scale reproduction of the famous Eames House. It may be the first time that the house has been paired with its most famous automotive contemporary, the Raymond Loewy-designed  Studebaker Avanti, and it is certainly the first time Rudi Gernreich’s seductive bathing suit will be anywhere near it, but such is the energy of the show, and the design which has brought it to fruition.

Raymond Loewy, Avanti, 1961, manufactured 1963-64, Petersen Automotive Museum

With more than 350 objects in the exhibition, what sort of design challenges did you face?
There were challenges, to be sure. Light-sensitive materials needed protection from the California sunlight which suffuses the Resnick Pavilion, and many of the more than three hundred and fifty artifacts required special treatment. Because objects, costumes, fabrics, and furniture were to be arranged according to the themes of the exhibition rather than by category, the displays needed to be adaptable to a wide range of sizes. Fragile jewelry was to be displayed in the shadow of the Eames house, and a replica of the long-gone setting for a Los Angeles Times photo shoot was to be surrounded by period advertising. The story was magnificent. How to support it by design was challenging, exciting, and rewarding.

Foreground: Kem (Karl Emanuel Martin) Weber, Desk and Chair, c. 1938, purchased jointly with funds provided by the Decorative Arts and Design Deaccession Fund, Viveca Paulin-Ferrell and Will Ferrell, Shannon and Peter Loughrey, Heidi and Said Saffari, and Holly and Albert Baril; background: Walt Disney Studios, Library Reading Room (presentation drawing), c. 1939, Kem Weber Collection, Architecture and Design Collection, Museum of Art, Design + Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara

Foreground: A. Quincy Jones and Frederick E. Emmons, Sofa and Table from the Spencer House, 1961-64, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Spencer and Harry W. Saunders

How do you hope visitors will respond to the exhibition?
We want this exhibition to echo the unique California life style: to be as supple, as physically beautiful, and as good-humored as the surfer featured in John Van Hamersveld’s Endless Summer poster; to be as disciplined and graphically sophisticated as Ray Eames’ covers for Arts and Architecture magazine; and as accessible as Saul Bass’s advertisement for The Man with the Golden Arm. This is a populist show, designed to echo and magnify the great design tradition which began in California, and is now the standard of the world.

Scott Tennent

Make Yourself at Home

September 26, 2011

Installing a recreation of the Eames House living room

We’ve already given you a peek at the installation of California Design, 1930–1965: “Living in a Modern Way,” which opens this Saturday (or Thursday for members). One of the biggest marvels of the installation is the re-creation of Charles and Ray Eames’ living room, which was carefully deinstalled from the Eames House last month and is now being reassembled piece by piece in the Resnick Pavilion. Over the weekend the Los Angeles Times posted a fantastic time-lapse video of the project, as well as an article that gives more detail into how this endeavor was pulled off.

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