- A Handbook of California Design, 1930–1965: Craftspeople, Designers, Manufacturers by Bobbye Tigerman
A Handbook of California Design is the companion to an exhibition held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from fall 2011 to spring 2012. It shares the comprehensive approach of the exhibition, generally eschewing a singular focus on well-known designers for a more egalitarian and wideranging assemblage of relevant practitioners, manufacturers, and promoters involved in the Los Angeles design world at mid-century. The format reflects this ambition: after a modest introduction, the book consists of a series of one- to two-page introductions to these figures and their practices.
Of course these individuals are held together not only by shared temporal and geographical space, but also by their participation in the emergence of a certain style. Though claiming a geographic egalitarianism (i.e., a willingness to include the Bay Area), the book is mostly interested in Los Angeles and its aesthetic hinterland. The premise that there is a specifically Californian design has been commented on extensively, for example in Esther McCoy’s engaging and supportive 1960s writings on Arts & Architecture’s Case Study House program. Thomas Hines’s more recent Architecture of the Sun: Los Angeles Modernism 1900–1970 (2010) has reiterated these issues in architectural terms. This California imagination came to define [End Page 263] a certain kind of “good life” in the postwar period, one that would soon take on global connotations.
Recent literature on the period has attempted to hold this design milieu accountable for the kind of present and future it imagined, and to see what lessons can be learned from the mid-century excitement about new forms, new objects, and new modes of production. A Handbook of California Design does not belabor the complex interconnections of style, policy, and economic growth, but rather is focused on isolating and documenting the trajectories of design practices. The catalog-style organization of the book is both its strength and its weakness: in allowing for a wide range of coverage, the entries introduce the reader to a much greater number of designers, materials, technologies, and methods than a more in-depth reading would allow. The range of entries is impressive, encompassing individual designers, firms, manufacturers, promoters, and others. On the other hand, because these brief introductions are framed as biographies, the narratives neglect the rhizomatic characteristics the project at first seems to project. Origin stories are frequently repeated, involving emigration in some cases, shared courses at the Art Center in others. It is more of a guidebook than a handbook, offering a synoptic tour. After a while, the biographic premise comes to seem like a barrier to understanding the stakes of “California design” rather than a window into it.
Another attempt to indicate the networked dynamism of this sociotechnical milieu is similarly disappointing: bright orange text is used when a name in a bio is that of someone else who appears in another place in the catalog. Instead of collecting and emphasizing these connections, this strategy ends up reinforcing the relative isolation of many of the individuals’ and groups’ practices—the extent to which they were chasing after the same distributors or licensing materials through the same firms. Many of these people and the materials, designs, and processes they championed rose to prominence, and it would be worthwhile to see these better-known practitioners placed among those who, we assume, were of equal skill and renown in the period. The book’s benefits will perhaps only be tested decades down the road, when enough of these players have been subject to intensive scholarly analysis, and rendered as a crucial part of their economic and cultural milieu. (A seminal text implicitly invoked is Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, which, though not published until 1977, was being written at the University of California, Berkeley, at the end of the Handbook’s timeline, in the mid-1960s. The open-source system of interrelationships that Alexander pioneers seems more alive as a system of knowledge than the...