Rediscovering MCM Masters

Wide-ranging SoCal exhibition brings new attention to California designers

MCM Masters

‘California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way,’ the new exhibition opening this Saturday, October 1, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and running through March 25, will introduce even the most knowledgeable fan of modern California design to something new and wonderful.

“One of the pleasures of doing the show was to uncover information about designers and craftspeople that have been lost to history,” says Bobbye Tigerman, an assistant curator who co-curated the show with Wendy Kaplan, the museum’s curator of decorative arts.

Tigerman says the topic was chosen because “we felt it was an important subject that needed scholarly attention. It was also a perfect opportunity to build our collection of California design.”

The exhibit will be unprecedented in the range of objects it will show, she says. The 350 pieces include furnishings and ceramics, tile, fashion, jewelry, textiles, cars, architecture, graphic and industrial design, and more.

Among the works in the exhibit is a wooden chair crafted in 1971 by the Long Beach artist Frank E. Cummings III, with freeform, almost psychedelic contours, and a mirror-like design that suggests a Rorschach test pattern.

Oak Chair

Frank Cummings’ hand-carved Japanese oak chair, 1971.
(Photo courtesy Frank E. Cummings III)

Cummings, who produced a similar chair upholstered in fur, has also created whimsical wooden vessels that often incorporate gold, semi-precious stones, and carved images, and an autobiographical ‘self-portrait’ cabinet. Cummings, an African-American, has traveled throughout Africa on assignment from the State Department, and designed the furniture for the movie ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back.’

Also on display will be a gorgeous pitted vase by the Northern California ceramicist James Lovera, who was known for his innovative, improvisational techniques. “I'm playing with fire every time,” he joked about his studio practice.

As Tigerman describes it, she and Kaplan functioned as much like investigative journalists—or private eyes—as scholars in searching out artists and works to include in the exhibit.

Through Forrest L. Merrill, a longtime Berkeley collector, the curators met three Bay Area craftswomen whose work deserves greater attention, Tigerman says: jewelry maker Merry Renk, enamellist June Schwarcz, and weaver Kay Sekimachi. “Each has an incredible home filled with their art and art of their friends,” Tigerman says.

Porcelain Vase

James Lovera’s glazed porcelain vase, 1962.
(Photo courtesy Forest L. Merrill)

The exhibit also recreates three historic mid-century spaces: the living room created by architect Kem Weber for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939, the living room of the Eames house in Pacific Palisades, and a recreation of the October 1951 cover of the Los Angeles Times Home magazine, complete with furnishings by Eames and Van Keppel Green and a ceramic work by Harrison McIntosh.

The headline on that cover? ‘What makes the California look?’

What does make the California look?

“It doesn’t boil down to simple aesthetic distinctions,” Tigerman says. In fact, she suggests, it’s more an attitude than a look. “One characteristic of California design is an informality and a casualness, especially in the furnishings and the clothing. People live a large part of their lives outdoors.”

“The ability to do anything, not to be held back by tradition,” she continues. “That part of the California ideology is what we are trying to show.”

For more on the ‘Living in a Modern Way’ exhibition, visit lacma.org.