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California: Designing Freedom at the Design Museum

25 May 2017 | Nicky Charlish

Traditionally, California is remembered as the home of Hollywood and hippies. Forget tradition though – what primarily marks it out now is Tech. Yet Silicon Valley is only one of the many things that California has contributed to the world at large. The Design Museum’s latest exhibition gives us a chance to look not just at what the state has contributed in the past, but also its global importance today.

What are the origins of Californian creativity? Its geographical location on America’s western seaboard meant it was the end of the line for those 19th century pioneers who set out in covered wagons searching for a new life. Perhaps California’s attitude of ‘innovate or die’ developed because of this search for a fresh start. It could also have been borne from a necessary, automatic response to having nowhere else to go – to crown the achievement of having nonetheless got there alive – and from the need to make all of the hardships endured in their travels worthwhile. California has subsequently become a place where people want to do their own thing, and they can do this because they can make the tools that they need to do it. It’s a place that combines the dreamily idealistic with the severely practical. This has resulted in economic prosperity, with money being the solid state - as it were - of both achievement and freedom.

What is a practical expression of Californian dreaming? Take the field of travel: California has shown us how to embrace the possibilities of motor transport and the congestion caused by mass car ownership. How? Firstly, by building the Los Angeles freeways, and meeting the needs of a city that grew up with the Car, and secondly by developing Google Maps - thus single-handedly putting an end to its awkwardly folding paper ancestor. Today – for the driver who doesn’t want the hassle of actually getting behind the wheel – self-driving cars have developed there. In October 2015, the Waymo technology company achieved the world’s first fully self-driving journey on a public road with a car lacking both steering wheel and pedals.


Image Credit: Spectacles, Snap Inc

California hasn’t only catered for those undergoing physical journeys though – it has done plenty for those wishing to journey with the mind too, by exploring our desires for perception and fantasy. Hollywood has led the way as the world’s visual dream factory: Walt Disney, and the continuing success of the operation he founded, being the obvious example. The state is also home to those who have given us graphics for wargaming and video games – two hugely popular forms of entertainment and escape. More controversially, it also played host to the production of LSD, part of the Californian drug culture (a scene captured in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) which, although optimistically intended to open the doors of perception, unintentionally flung wide apart those of pretentiousness about what drug use could achieve for the human spirit. The old acid-heads who can been seen today wandering the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco – once the epicentre of the West Coast hippy scene – are a sad reflection of the burnout of Sixties’ drug-based naivety.

That culture is as a further example of how California products have promoted forms of self-expression and rebellion. California was the base for Emory Douglas, minister of culture for the radical American Black Panther Party from 1967 until its demise in the 1980s, who produced its bitter agit-prop posters. The radical Ray Gun magazine, a publication dealing with music and pop culture – among other topics – was founded there in 1992. For the first three years of its existence, art director David Carson experimented with forms of visual storytelling, typography and layout which would go on to influence the approach of future graphic designers. He is frequently named as one of the world’s most influential and innovative designers by magazines including Newsweek, Graphis and i-D.


Image Credit: The ODIN

California has also paved the way in democratising access to the tools of production and self-reliance. The counterculture bible Whole Earth Catalog appeared between 1968 and 1972, giving reviews on products that furthered self-sufficiency, ecology and alternative education. At the other end of the scale, California was the birthplace of Apple Macintosh computers, which helped kick-start the mass marketing of PCs and all the social, political and cultural developments to have followed since.

Finally, California has been a leader in the field of self-chosen collaboration, providing means for community achievement – a prime example being the Sussman Prejza group of conceptualists, graphic and interior designers and architects. The firm has been at the forefront of exploring how visual communications can be expressed within buildings. Sussman Prejza are responsible for, among other things, the look of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games as well as the identity and exhibits of the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.


Image Credit: Institute of Illegal Images

Justin McGuirk and Brendan McGetrick, the exhibition’s two curators, sum up California’s overall importance and spirit. McGuirk reminds us that ‘there have been lots of shows about Californian design, but they always focus on mid-century modernism – mainly Charles and Ray Eames, or the 40s and 50s. Previous shows have focused on particular moments in California, but there hasn’t been a show about more recent developments – particularly in Silicon Valley. We know how much iPhones, laptops, personal computers and user interfaces have changed our lives, so we decided to do this show in order to start thinking about these changes. It’s not the final word but it’s a starting point.’ McGetrick points out that ‘one of the state’s values is to make money. Steve Jobs, perhaps more than anyone, embodied the idea of being socially conscious, by trying to change the world in a positive way, whilst also becoming a billionaire at the same time. There is no problem with this. I think it’s an aspect of Californian values - that ideals and good ideas should become a profit-making business. The ability to conflate those utopian values with money-making, and not see any internal contradiction, is what distinguishes California’s designs.’

It can be argued that much of what California has produced has ridden on the backs of previous ideas. But it is a combination of forces – idealistic and practical – from within California, alongside its historical experience, which gave it the foresight to run with these ideas and develop them. This experience has relevance for Britain, too. With the challenges of Brexit now upon us, California gives us a necessary template for prosperity-bearing innovation. Whether we can match it – well, that’s another matter.

California: Designing Freedom runs at the Design Museum till October 15. Tickets are £16.
 
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