Last year, conservators wrapped up the contents of the living room of two of California’s most important designers: the late husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames. The furniture was transported to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a full-scale recreation of the room formed a central part of the exhibition, Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965. Among the 1,864 objects on display were recognisable pieces, such as the Eames lounge chair and their trademark storage units, as well as more commonplace items, including terracotta folk sculptures, seashells and a wooden spinning toy.
The Eames’ living room is a good example of Californian mid-20th-century style in situ. The simple furniture is typical of a wider modernism movement flourishing around the world in the middle of the past century. However, the collection of quirky ornaments belongs to the less stark version of modernism adopted by architects and designers on the US west coast. Today this laid-back version of the mid-century modern style continues to influence interiors throughout the country.
In the 1920s, California’s population grew dramatically as a result of a booming economy. Émigré architects from Europe, such as Richard Neutra and RM Schindler, arrived in the rapidly expanding city of Los Angeles. They took modernist materials, such as glass, concrete and steel, and put them to work in the landscape, building geometric and airy houses with wood-framed sliding glass doors and elegant patios that invited the outdoors in. California’s sunny climate provided the perfect backdrop to experiment with blurring the boundaries between indoor and outdoor living space.
After the second world war, Arts & Architecture magazine launched the Case Study House experiment, commissioning the likes of Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen to design and build model homes that could cope with the housing boom and millions of returning soldiers. The idea was to create truly modern houses that could be constructed easily and cheaply and the entries influenced prefab houses and experimental design practices throughout the US. There were 36 designs submitted, including the aforementioned Eames house (case study No 8) as well as Californian architect Pierre Koenig’s prefabricated steel-framed house with views over the Hollywood Hills (case study No 21).
Postwar designers focused on creating affordable, well-designed furniture and sought to reconcile craftsmanship with mass production. Many capitalised on technologies developed during the war. Advances in steel-frame construction allowed architects to create giant sliding doors, while moulded fibreglass and plywood were used to make chairs. Charles Eames made mass-produced furniture available at modest prices, such as the hugely successful fibreglass LAR, a low lounge chair with moulded seat and “cat’s cradle” steel base, manufactured by Herman Miller.
A key location in the development of Californian design was Palm Springs, a desert resort to the east of LA set against the San Jacinto mountains. The area was once a popular retreat for movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Bing Crosby, who came in search of sun and seclusion. Top architects built modern homes for Hollywood’s elite, among them E Stewart Williams, who designed a house for Frank Sinatra and his first wife, Nancy Barbato, with a piano-shaped swimming pool.
Trina Turk, a fashion and homeware designer, owns two mid-century homes in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Her Palm Springs house, known as the Ship of the Desert for its resemblance to a streamlined boat, was designed by Californian architects Erle Webster and Adrian Wilson. In spite of its unusual façade, the house is in many ways typical of mid-century properties in the area, with its kidney-shaped pool and various balconies.
Turk’s home is filled with mid-century design classics, such as a Vladimir Kagan sectional sofa and patio furniture upholstered in one of Turk’s own persimmon orange and ivory graphic patterns. Turk finds inspiration in mid-century textiles, especially those of the great Finnish masters of print, Marimekko, and the richly patterned designs of Austrian-born architect and designer Josef Frank. “Interior design in the ’50s and ’60s was just a lot more colourful than it is in many places now,” she says.
Sam Kaufman, an LA-based furniture dealer, says that pieces made by Californian designers have become even more coveted over the years. He cites lesser-known names, such as ceramicist David Cressey, who made huge earthenware pots, and Jerry and Evelyn Ackerman, another husband and wife team renowned for their tapestries and wall-hangings. While such items cost several thousands of dollars, Kaufman says the best of Californian mid-century design is still less expensive today than French or Italian postwar design. He adds that only a handful of pieces by designers such as Charles and Ray Eames are rare enough to be out of reach for most people (he is selling a rare prewar child’s desk by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen for $8,000 but it is possible to pick up original Eames chairs for less than $1,000).
Those looking for classic Californian pieces should head to Palm Springs, where there is an annual celebration of mid-century design and architecture. The area’s Uptown Design District, running along North Palm Canyon Drive, is home to a variety of upscale vintage and modern furniture shops. Alternatively, Melrose Avenue in LA is another good location for mid-century finds. Of particular note is the Reform Gallery, which is currently selling an Evelyn Ackerman tapestry ($1,200) depicting autumn leaves in orange hues and a handcrafted teak coffee table ($18,000) by Sam Maloof, a Californian furniture designer and woodworker.
The style has also proved inspirational for a younger generation of Californians. Christopher Kennedy is a furniture designer and interior designer based in Palm Springs. Although he regularly uses original mid-century pieces in projects, he says it is also important to continue taking the style forwards. “I love being inspired by the time but I don’t want to live in a museum and my clients don’t either,” says Kennedy.
Instead, he puts his own spin on classic forms, using the colours of the Palm Springs landscape – “green golf courses and blue skies”. This may mean creating mid-century designs in acrylic, painting a walnut credenza a bright shade of green or creating oversized pieces that he says can often work better in the larger scale homes many people desire today.
“The great designers from that era were really groundbreaking and were using new technology and new inventive ways,” says Kennedy. “I don’t think it is doing an honour to their legacy if we just copy them.”
Bialetti’s stovetop espresso maker
The Bialetti stovetop espresso maker was the first domestic coffee machine, writes Kate Watson-Smyth. Designed in 1933, the distinctive aluminium pot has been exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and at the Cooper-Hewitt, as well as London’s Design Museum. But, while it has gained its place as a contemporary classic, few know it owes its origins to the washing machine.
Alberto Bialetti, later immortalised on his invention as l’omino con i baffi (“the little man with the moustache”), set up his aluminium factory in 1918, making household goods. At that time, when Italians wanted to drink espresso, they had to go to a bar; domestic coffee machines made a much weaker drink.
Various inventors had started to experiment with steam-pressured machines to try to create a gadget that could be used at home to make a café-style espresso and Bialetti decided to have a go using aluminium.
One day, near his factory in Piedmont, Bialetti watched women washing their clothes in a sealed boiler with a small central pipe. The pipe drew the soapy water from the bottom of the boiler and spread it over the wet laundry. Bialetti decided to adapt this idea.
In 1933 he finally succeeded. Though the Moka Express had a look that was reminiscent of the silver coffee sets found at the time in many Italian homes, it was capable of making the strong coffee found only in public bars. Bialetti said that, without “any ability whatsoever”, one could enjoy an espresso at home that was as good as you could find in a coffee bar.
However, sales of the Moka were initially slow. His son, Renato, changed all that. After the second world war, Renato came up with the distinctive caricature, said to be loosely based on his father, and began marketing the product.
Now, nearly 80 years old, the Moka is still going strong. It has sold more than 200m units and the design has barely changed.