This weekend, as part of (what else?) the mega mid-century SoCal art survey Pacific Standard Time, LACMA will open California Design, 1930-1965: "Living in a Modern Way." It's the first major exhibition of California mid-century modern design, with more than 350 objects (including an Oscar, a Studebaker Avanti, and a Barbie Dream House) installed in a design by local architecture firm Hodgetts + Fung--they talked to LACMA's Unframed about the project today. Probably the most ambitious part of the show is the exact recreation of the Eames House living room inside an Eames House-inspired frame (Husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames both designed the Pacific Palisades house and lived in it). We talked to co-curator Bobbye Tigerman about how to relocate a room that's been perfectly preserved since 1988 and other highlights of California Design. This has been edited just slightly for length and clarity.
Curbed LA: How did the idea to move the entire Eames House living room into LACMA come about?
Bobbye Tigerman: In the course of planning the exhibition, we had always hoped to show an authentic modern interior in the exhibition. And the challenge was that a lot of architecture is preserved in Los Angeles, but very rarely are buildings preserved and not changed since the sixties. So we were looking for a house that was preserved and one of the frontrunners was the Eames House, which is preserved as it was on the day that Ray Eames died in 1988. But when you look at photographs of it as early as the mid-fifties, you have the same arrangement of furniture, a lot of the same objects arrayed throughout the room.
So we approached the Eames foundation, asked them if they would be willing to loan the contents of the living room; we would construct the frame and we would show this really extraordinary interior, that is not just your average modern interior, but was the place where the most influential and legendary pioneers of modern design lived, and demonstrate how they lived. And very fortunately, the Foundation was hoping to redo their floors, so they were thrilled that we would take good care of their belongings while they made some much-needed renovations.
CLA: How do you actually move a whole room like that and reinstall it?
BT: It took a lot of planning and involved almost every department in the museum--conservation, registrars, art handlers, curatorial, everyone really pitched in and went way beyond the call of duty to make this happen. We made several visits to the house to measure it, to take thousands of pictures so we could recreate the exact locations and object arrangements, and to assess what kind of packing equipment was required to move all of the objects, some of which are very fragile and very delicate and have never been moved since they arrived. One example is the bookcase? the bookcase has never been out of the living room, so we had to be very careful about moving it out.
We sort of took a "last out, first in" approach, so we first started with taking all of the textiles--the rugs, the blankets, the pillows--because we were concerned that there was a chance that the organic material could have an infestation. So we put all the susceptible material--all of the textiles and all the books--into a giant, truck-sized freezer that would mitigate any possible infestation. We didn't have any evidence of it, but we just wanted to be sure. We didn't want to let that kind of material into the museum. So all of the textiles and books went first, and then we brought up the furniture, all of the small objects--there's hundreds of small objects on all the tabletops--and then the larger pieces, like there's an oar that hangs from the ceiling, a ladder that's the full height of the room, and the bookcase as well--those rather big, bulky objects--and all the lamps too, all the paper lanterns.
CLA: What are the other standout objects, or is it more of a whole room experience?
BT: The objects are really extraordinary. I think what's really neat about the room is the juxtaposition of things. Like you'll have very valuable things next to very cheap things, very foreign and exotic things next to very common things, and it was their brilliance to combine all of these very eclectic objects and create this kind of unified space. But you have a compact sofa that they designed and they lived with, you have a small, green footstool that was designed by Charles's daughter Lucia. There is the famous painted wood crow? it's kind of iconic and sits in the middle of the living room. As well as the bookcase, which is based on the design for the Eames Storage Unit? It's made of very special materials. The uprights are champagne aluminum and so it's a very special version of one of their very classic designs.
CLA: How will people going to the exhibit experience the room? Will they be able to go through?
BT: No, they'll be able to look at it from three different vantage points. One wall, which in the house is all glass, has no glass, so you'll be able to get a very good view on it. And then the other walls, you'll be able to look through glass.
CLA: How did the "What Makes the California Look" room recreation come about?
BT: We're recreating the cover of the Los Angeles Times Home magazine from October 21, 1951. And on that day, the cover's headline was "What Makes the California Look." And in the photo is what they called an abstract arrangement of objects that kind of embodied California design. And we chose to recreate this cover because of what it says about California design and how it was disseminated and understood by people in California as well as further afield.
So the objects in the cover were all part of the Los Angeles County Fair. They were shown at the fair in 1951. They communicated to the fairgoers the best of California design. And then some of them were also chosen to travel in an exhibition that was in Germany, circulated by the US State Department as a Cold War propaganda tool. So it went broad and then began to speak for what California design was. And what's remarkable about the cover is how many of the pieces are still very familiar--you have an Eames fiberglass chair on the cover, still in production; chair and ottoman by Van Keppel-Green; ceramics by Harrison McIntosh--and we were able to locate almost every piece on the cover, and when we weren't able to locate the exact piece, we found very close substitutions.
CLA: What's the process for locating those pieces?
BT: We first started in our collection, a lot of things we already had in our collection, like the Van Keppel-Green ottoman or the Allan Adler pitcher. And then we went to local collectors, who had many of the different pieces. And sometimes if we didn't have something in the collection, but we found it for example on eBay or with a local dealer, we could buy it and then add it to the collection.
CLA: With it showing at the LA County Fair, was this already a pretty popular notion of California design?
BT: I think it runs the gamut. You certainly will have objects that were very inexpensive and were wildly available, but there's also incredibly rare and unique pieces too. The subtitle of the show is "Living in a Modern Way," and it comes from a quote by Greta Magnusson Grossman, who is one of our designers, an emigre from Sweden who came to Los Angeles in 1940. She said in 1951 "California design “is not a superimposed style, but an answer to present conditions?It has developed out of our own preferences for living in a modern way." So "living in a modern way" was sort of a guiding principle for us and what we mean by that, and what I think she meant by that, is that it wasn't a style with particular attributes that characterized this period, but it was an attitude, an openness, new materials, new techniques, new ways of doing things, and to have expensive things juxtaposed with inexpensive things, to have the rare with the familiar, was part of this attitude or way of living that she's getting at and that I think a lot of the objects in the show speak to.
CLA: That brings us to the Barbie Dream House--what's the relationship between that and the Eames room or the California Look? Is there a line between them?
BT: I think there is--the dream house was released around 1962 and it's a cardboard house, all the of the furnishings are made of cardboard as well. The aesthetic kind of feels like a Scandinavian modern style, so Barbie's first dream house was really a modern house. And it's a one-room house, like a studio, with her bed and her living area all in that room. So this idea of open plans and the lack of boundaries between spaces, the permeability of the living and the dining, and the formal and the informal areas is all borne out in this dream house.
CLA: How do the exhibition and the design by Hodgetts + Fung play off the Resnick Pavilion?
BT: The Resnick Pavilion as you may know has very high twenty foot ceilings and has natural light coming in through the saw-tooth roof. So it allows us to have this really beautiful natural light, very typical of California--bright and airy. So that has really worked well. It has also been a challenge because a lot of the objects, particularly the textiles and the works on paper--the drawings and the prints--require low light levels in order to be shown in a museum so that they don't fade. So the challenge that the designers faced was to create areas within the exhibition that have lower light levels that would allows us to show the sensitive materials there. And they did that by creating these fabric canopies that lower the light certain areas.
CLA: What do you hope visitors will walk away from the show feeling about Southern California?
BT: I hope that they have a greater appreciation for the design and ingenuity that sprung from here.
CLA: Do you see a relationship between the contemporary Southern California design scene and this show?
BT: I think design has changed a lot and entirely new fields have appeared since the period of this show and the modes of manufacturing are entirely different, but I think that the driving ideas and the reasons why people came here or why people stayed here--ideas about openness and flexibility, and the ability to accomplish things without the constraints that you might face in other places--I think those are still relevant. And I think designers are still flocking here because of that. So while the conditions may have changed, some of the foundations remain the same.
· Entire Eames House Living Room Being Moved Into LACMA [Curbed LA]