California Design

Visual Arts

California Design: Queensland Art Gallery

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Daily Review’s Brisbane reporter Alison Cotes checked out California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way at Queensland Art Gallery.
If you’re visiting this exhibition for a nostalgia trip, you’ll be surprised at how modern it is. On the day I visited many were dressed, unwittingly, in these retro fashions, for bright orange is this season’s colour, and tight waists and gathered over-short skirts are again, unfortunately, the order of the day.
The jewellery represented in California Design is quirky in an unchanging, stylish way, down to the ornate twist of silver and coloured gemstones. I particularly loved the two-tier silver collar that spelled out the ironic Shakespearean couplet, “As long as men can breathe and eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” If only we knew for whom this exquisite work was made, the Bard, like other poets of his time (Spenser, for example, who one day wrote her name upon the strand), would be proved true. But here, as in all the arts except portraiture, in the long run a work immortalises only its creator.
Only teenage visitors, in their retro sixties clothes, can afford to be blasé about this exhibition – from older generations there were gasps of recognition, especially at the daring two-piece swimsuits, heavily padded and super-modest. Toys are another popular feature, and the original Ken and Barbie, bland and featureless, made us wonder what all the fuss was about when they were first introduced.

Charles Eames   1907–1978 active Venice  Ray Eames   1912–1988 active Venice  Molded Plywood Division, Evans Products  Company   1943–47 Venice  Elephant
Charles Eames
Ray Eames
1943–47 Venice Elephant

What child wouldn’t want to sit on the 1945 moulded plywood elephant from the Eames Collection, while their mother swanned around in a bright orange Irene Saltern dress from 1960? The surfboards are as eye-popping as anything made in the 21st century, especially if you’re a girl wearing a sexy one-piece swimsuit featuring the American flag (although in 1960, she’d be more likely sitting on the beach admiring her handsome hulk ride the waves).
Mary Ann DeWeese swimsuit
Mary Ann DeWeese
1913–93 active Los Angeles
Woman’s swimsuit 1961

The furniture, too, hasn’t dated a bit, and still fits well in any modern décor, and the chairs are wonderfully inviting, especially as there’s nowhere much in the gallery (shame, this) for weary visitors to sit and rest. Designers like Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Dreyfuss, Dorothy Wright Liebes and Raymond Loewy made full use of materials new at the time, like moulded and shaped plywood, fibreglass, wire mesh and synthetic resins — materials and techniques, which, in many cases, grew out of the defence and aerospace industries and defined modern American material culture, and have never been superseded.
If you’re not satisfied with just the exhibits and the Californian food on offer, Queensland Art Gallery is again staging the very popular Up Late programs on Friday nights until 13 December. Artists include The Break, Cub Sport, Sonny and the Sunsets (California), Bandito Folk and Velociraptor, Courtney Barnett and Gareth Liddiard. Full details are available via Queensland Art Gallery.
California has always echoed Brisbane (or should that be the other way around?), so it’s fitting that in Australia this exhibition should be unique to Brisbane. It runs right through the summer, which promises to be as long and hot as the clothes, ceramics, metalwork and film on display.
[box] California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way is at Queensland Art Gallery until 9 February 2014. More information and tickets are available via Queensland Art Gallery[/box]

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