Provenance can tell us a lot about a product. “Made in China” became synonymous with mass-produced, cheaply made goods in the 1980s. “Made in Italy” has long been used to signify craft and luxury. Of course, the truth is that you can find both well- and poorly made items under both labels, but there’s a longstanding belief that place matters.
Over the past few decades, another slogan emerged: “Designed in California.” The most obvious example is Apple, which emblazons the phrase all over its products, and even turned it into a full-fledged ad campaign in 2013. A number of other startups have printed that phrase on their products, too. Even companies outside of tech, including the shoe company K-Swiss and the interior design firm Commune, characterize their work as “Designed in California.”
Why, and when, did those three words take on so much capital with consumers? According to the curators of a new exhibition on Californian design at the Design Museum in London, “Designed in California” sells freedom—and that’s what consumers want today.
Tracing the rise of the slogan mirrors a sweeping change in how design itself is defined. Traditionally, it meant furniture, textiles, domestic products, and graphics. Today, the discipline is much broader and includes software, user interfaces, and experience design. “For us it’s not so much a ‘when’ as a ‘what,'” Justin McGuirk, curator of California: Designing Freedom, tells Co.Design via email. “The shift from ‘Made in Italy’ to ‘Designed in California’ is about a shift in design from home furnishings to devices.”
As McGuirk explains, Italian design became synonymous with the idea of modernity in the postwar era. Thoughtfully designed, well-made, and mass-produced products were positioned as agents of democracy, and everyday people could live better lives because of these things. “Italy’s preeminence was based on a combination of craftsmanship with modernization, supplying a growing middle class with the trappings of a higher quality of life,” he says.
Meanwhile, engineers and designers in California were taking advanced wartime military technology and translating it into products like the first computers. But to sell them, they needed to find a way to get people interested in these novel—and expensive—devices. In the ’70s, people didn’t inherently understand tech’s potential usefulness to their everyday lives yet. It was something for scientists, astronauts, and big business. But that quickly began to change.
For instance, when Hewlett-Packard debuted its HP-35 scientific pocket calculator—a device that was able to do complex trigonometric functions—in 1972, it set a precedent for how California-designed products could make users’ lives easier by putting them in control of the tech. The company staged a huge advertising campaign that showed its product tucked into a shirt pocket with a clear numerical read-out on the screen. Next to it was a clunky slide rule and the phrase: “the first pocket answer machine that speaks your language.” This formula was later repeated ad infinitum.
“One theme stands out in particular: the idea of personal liberation,” McGuirk says. “The ad for Apple’s PowerBook 100, for instance, has a one-word slogan: ‘Freedom.’ The notion that a computer could be as portable as a book was presented as liberating. Technology, then and now, is perceived as enabling you to do anything, anywhere. This is all propagating the notion that the right kind of personal computer could help you become your true self.”
Advertising introduced consumers to the idea that they could express themselves through technology, and that technology could become part of their identities. When the Osborne Computer Company began selling portable computers–a predecessor to laptops–in the early ’80s, it framed them as a way to stay competitive at work. The guy without one “doesn’t stand a chance” against one who does, an ad states. Other tech companies emphasized the personal relationship someone would have with technology, like Palm and its controversial “Simply Palm” campaign, which depicted a nude woman cradling one of their personal digital assistants. Marin Bikes, a company founded in the ’80s, named itself after the Bay Area county as a way to capitalize on what the region symbolized.
As design historian Barry Katz writes in the exhibition’s catalog: “Thirty years ago, the suggestion that the Bay Area might some day become a center of design would have been met with bemused smiles from the ateliers of Milan, Paris, London, Tokyo, or New York, but today–driven by the ideal of mobility and grounded in the relentless pursuit of miniaturization–this is incontestably the case.”
The irony is that while technology has allowed us to do more, it’s also created new problems: We’re addicted to our devices and manipulated through software design. The companies that are making this technology are contributing to car-dependent culture through their office designs and have toxic corporate cultures. So it’s conceivable that in the future, “Designed in California” might lose its capital.