California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), shows off some of the best West Coast design of the 20th century: an Airstream trailer, Paul László textiles, Dick Van Dyke’s Studebaker Avanti (!).
But the real showstopper is a life-sized recreation of Charles and Ray Eames’s living room from their 1949 Case Study House. It was here, under 17-foot-tall ceilings with expansive views of the outdoors, where design’s power couple chatted and entertained guests like any other husband and wife of the post-war era. One difference: It was also their laboratory. They used it to experiment with decor and test out new designs, including their iconic Eames lounge and ottoman.
Incredibly, after the couple died—Charles in 1978, Ray 10 years later—the room remained largely untouched, until now.
Last fall, LACMA carted a whopping 1,864 objects from the house in Pacific Palisades to the exhibition floor in L.A.’s Mid-Wilshire district. The result is a rare window onto the personal tastes of two of the 20th century’s most influential American taste makers.
The first thing you notice is how weirdly hoardy they were. This was not a tidy temple of minimalism—the sort of thing you’d expect from a couple whose name is practically synonymous with the crisp aesthetics of mid-century design. They had books and magazines everywhere and mismatched blankets layered over the couch and plants all over the place. Oh, and they loved tchotkes. As the L.A. Times reports:
The Eameses filled their living room with white-painted terra-cotta folk sculpture of Nandi (the bull of the Hindu god Shiva), a wooden spinning toy, smaller sculptures, shells, stones. Every piece had a narrative. The stylized wooden leopards, one sitting to the side of the bookcase, arrived courtesy of Billy Wilder—swapped for an Alexander Calder mobile, a deal in which Wilder thought he got the better end.
It’s ironic that mid-century modernism, which rejected a starchy formalism in favor of affordable, high-quality, and comfortable interior design, is now associated with lack of comfort. These days, the typical mid-century-inspired space looks and feels like a museum. But as the Eameses show, that wasn’t the original intent. If there’s a lesson in their decor, it’s this: Live comfortably. And don’t make deals with famous filmmakers.
California Design stays open until June 3.
[Images: Museum Associates/LACMA]