No mere ornament

Pub date August 13, 2008
WriterAva Jancar
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

REVIEW In Mary and Russel Wright’s Guide to Easier Living, first published in 1950, the designers instruct the midcentury housewife to avoid the "deeply carved wooden chair" in favor of a "contour design" to "simplify cleaning." This form-follows-function approach to design reached its height in the mass market in 1950s and ’60s, most notably with the introduction of the stacking, molded fiberglass chairs of Charles and Ray Eames — which can still found, en masse, in libraries throughout the University of California system.

Initially fueled at the beginning of the 20th century by the creative force of the Bauhaus movement, the reaction against ornamentation was iterated not only in the home but also in painting and music. A traveling survey, "Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury," now on view at the Oakland Museum, presents a cross-section of modernism as explored by West Coast — and specifically Los Angeles — artists and designers. The exhibition takes a social and domestic stance, interspersing living room–like sets with didactic timelines, framing Vernor Panton’s iconic "S" chair with the introduction of Barbie and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. While this presentation nicely emphasizes the consumer context of much of the midcentury design, the pristine examples of hard-edge paintings do not benefit as much from this framework.

Characterized by well-defined abstract and geometric forms, the paintings by Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, Karl Benjamin, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin, among others, instead situate themselves through their own clear, clean lines. Much the same way the subtle variations in Mondrian’s surfaces define his work, the intricacies of these paintings reinforce the mentality of their era — a philosophical idealization of the California landscape and climate. They vibrate an optimism in direct opposition to the frustration found in abstract expressionism on the opposite coast.

BIRTH OF COOL: CALIFORNIA ART, DESIGN, AND CULTURE AT MIDCENTURY Through Aug. 17. Wed.–Sat., 10 a.m–5 p.m. (first Fri., 10 a.m.–9 p.m.); Sun., noon–5 p.m. Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak, Oakl. $8, $5 seniors and students (free second Sun.). (510) 238-2200,