While California’s mid-century modernism is well documented, this claims to be the first exhibition to examine its current global reach. Picking up the story in the 1960s, the exhibition charts the journey from the counterculture to Silicon Valley’s tech culture.
How did California come to have such a powerful influence on contemporary design? California: Designing Freedom explores how the ideals of the 1960s counterculture morphed into the tech culture of Silicon Valley, and how ‘Designed in California’ became a global phenomenon.
The central premise is that California has pioneered tools of personal liberation, from LSD to surfboards and iPhones.
CALIFORNIA - designing freedom
London's Design Museum has recently reopened in a new location on High Street Kensington, to what was originally the former Commonwealth Institute building. Built in the 1960s, this is a Grade II* listed building that had stood vacant for over a decade - it has now been transformed into a 21st century museum, whilst at the same time retaining its unique spatial quality.
The Design Museum is the world’s leading museum of contemporary design and architecture, a showcase for the many design skills at which Britain excels and a creative centre, promoting innovation and nurturing the next generation of design talent. So Lets Go!
SAY WHAT YOU WANT - tools of self-expression & rebellion
Californian designers have pioneered various forms of freedom of expression, producing distinct graphic cultures that have been widely influential. The political agitation of the 1960's produced a wave of activist design in support of free speech and civil rights for African Americans, women and the gay community. Artists and designers such as Sister Corita Kent and Emory Douglas of the Black Panthers created a politically charged language with a pop aesthetic.
By the 1980's, political content gave way to more individualistic forms of expression. Designers such as April Greiman pursued a postmodernism 'New Wave' aesthetic that was emotive and influenced by punk. David Carson gave the subcultures of skateboarding and surfing their own anarchic graphic language, which culminated in the often illegible pages of Ray Gun magazine. Southern Californian graphic design of the 1980s and '90s was a rejection of the corporate modernism of New York.
These idiosyncratic styles have been superseded by the social-media platforms that put tools of personal expression in the hands of anyone with a computer or a smartphone. We can all broadcast our individualism, but through the standardised interfaces of Facebook or Twitter. Now activists and presidents use the same formats to say what they want.
SEE WHAT YOU WANT - tools of perception & fantasy
From DisneyLand to Hollywood, California is a place that manufactures fantasy on an industrial scale. This capacity for make-believe coexists alongside the urge to invent media and new ways of seeing the world. In the 1960's, LSD was part of the same tendency, treated not just as a recreational drug but a way of expanding consciousness,. It shaped both the music and the psychedelic graphics of San Francisco's counterculture.
That desire to plug in to alternative realities found different outlets in the 1970's and the 80's with the development of video games. Atrari's Pong game consisted of batting a single pixel back and forth across the screen. It proved wildly popular and spawned an industry that is dedicated to making games ever more lifelike.
Todays's tools of perception are blurring the boundaries between fantasy and the physical world. Augmented reality aims to enhance our vision with layer of data, while virtual reality headsets simulate experiences that feel real. At the same time, the proliferation of tiny cameras and photo-sharing apps has bred a culture that records itself obsessively, often with an audience in mind. We submit to self-surveillance to an extent that previous generations would have found shocking.
JOIN WHO YOU WANT - tools of collaboration & community
The freedom to live and work together has always been essential to success and survival in California. That spirit still informs the work of designers, engineers and programmers who have pushed community building into the digital realm.
Through the 1960's and 70's, California's counter culture experimented with autonomous communities. Festivals, conferences and communes provided a testing ground for prototypes of what an egalitarian culture. Informal hobbyist groups such as Homebrew Computer Club took digital technology out of the hands of corporations and made it a tool for connecting smaller groups.
In the 1980's, the utopianism of the communes was replaced by the potential of virtual communities. In 1985, the creators of the Whole Earth Catolog launched one of the first computer networks, the While Earth 'Lectronic Link. The emergence of social media, such as Facebook, has expanded the size of online groups exponentially. It remains an open question whether virtual communities flourish at the expense of real-world togetherness.
MAKE WHAT YOU WANT - tools of production & self-reliance
After the Summer of Love in 1967, thousands of hippies left San Francisco to form communes across the country. They set out to build a new society and needed the tools with which to do it. Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog became an essential resource. It offered a revolutionary view of the potential technology in a practical guide that included everything from weaving kits to scientific calculators.
The Catalog recast technologies previously understood as the exclusive preserve of large corporate or military users as tools of individual empowerment. 'Democratising' these technologies became a mission. Eventually, it also became a business model, as tools that once required huge budgets and years of training were translated into affordable gadgets that almost anyone could use.
A few former hippies, led by Steve Jobs, would eventually produce the Macintosh, the so-called 'computer for the rest of us'. The Mac, in turn, lanuched the desktop publishing revolution, the effects of whicih were first felt in California by graphic designers. After desktop publishing came desktop manufacturing and, more recently, desktop genetic engineering. Silicon Valley's frenetic startup scene is the extreme version of a culture of democratised technology in which the amateur is king and DIY is imperative.