California Dreamin’ at Peabody Essex Museum

If ever there were a day to be California Dreamin’, it was a recent day when the sky was gray, the leaves were brown, and there was no doubt that it was warmer in L.A. Luckily, there was shelter from the gloom at the Peabody Essex Museum’s sleek and sunny new exhibit, “California Design 1930-1965: Living In A Modern Way.” 

Five years in the making, the exhibit asks the question, “What is the California way of life?” It answers it with 250 mid-century design objects broken into four themes: shaping, making, living and selling. These objects cover a lot of territory and commemorate the innovation, experimentation and freedom that characterized the golden era of the Golden State. The galleries are chockfull of items, from furnishings and architectural renderings of homes, to jewelry and toys. There is a shiny aluminum 1930’s Air Stream Clipper, and Esther Williams’s glittering gold lame swimsuit.


Woman’s bathing suit, late 1950s. Gift of Esther Ginsberg and Linda Davis in honor of Jennifer Blake. Margit Fellegi Estate; Reproduced with permission of The Warnaco Group Inc. For Authentic Fitness Corp., Cole of California. MuseumAssociates/LACMA

Wandering the fashion and home decor sections, one feels like an intruder on the “Mad Men” set. In somewhat academic fashion, the exhibit explores the various historical influences that shaped and marketed the distinctive “California aesthetic.” Unprecedented population and economic explosions during the 1920’s and 1930’s insulated California from the suffering much of the rest of the country experienced after the Great Depression. Oil, agriculture and movie industries took seed and thrived. The vintage aerial views contrasting the 1922 and 1930 intersections of Wilshire and Fairfax Boulevards are visual proof.

After World War II, 850,000 GIs received California subsidized housing, looking for an indoor/outdoor lifestyle of warmth, surf and fun. Designers, including many avant-garde European immigrants who had fled Nazi persecution, heard of California’s reputation for encouraging professional originality and daring, and flocked there.


Dan Johnson and Hayden Hall, Desk, 1947. LACMA, purchased with funds provided by The Buddy Taub Foundation, Dennis A. Roach and Jill Roach, Directors. 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Developments of new materials during the war (such as molded plywood, fiberglass and steel) and new commercial technologies after the war together created, for the first time, the ability to mass-produce goods. Moreover, the confluence of three conditions generated the perfect consumerist storm: enormous population growth, economic boom and postwar optimism. Add permanently sunny skies and spontaneous cultural combustion seemed inevitable.

The show’s open floor plan mirrors the California architects’ concepts of collapsed boundaries between rooms and fluidity of space. Strolling the show is like a scavenger hunt down memory lane. Charles and Ray Eames’ famous “Eames chair,” Barbie and Ken dolls, and the Polaroid Swinger camera are near a kidney-shaped pool and icons of the glamour of Hollywood (including Cedric Gibbons’ 1927 Oscar statue). Floor lamps with attitude, flatware with personality, and fashion with flair round out the offerings.

The overriding theme of the exhibit, however, is that the “California Dream” was meant to fulfill everyman’s dream of the modern, middle-class utopia.

“The goal was to provide well-designed, accessible and affordable modern homes and furnishings to millions of Californians, and those around the country who craved them,” said Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s American Art curator. “The designers wanted to make everyday life comfortable and beautiful. Their motto was, ‘The best for the most for the least,’” she added.

The show’s 1930-1965 time bracket is deliberate. It starts at modern California’s birth, amidst 1930’s economic and cultural optimism, and winds down with 1965’s dawn of the counter-culture, political protest and individualism. In between, however, is a magical wonderland of color, charm and joie de vivre. Revel in its sheer joy and envy its giddy innocence of what the future holds.

Pictured at top: Raymond Loewy, Studebaker Avanti, 1964. Private Collection of Richard Vaux. Walter Silver/PEM