When people talk about the 1950s they don’t do it in the nudge-nudge, wink-wink “if you remember you weren’t there” kind of way they talk about the 60s. From my memory the ‘50s were rather more boring. I can remember them! But I was a kid then and boredom is the constant companion of kids.
From my adult perspective, and with the help of historical context, the Queensland Art Gallery’s current California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way exhibition shows why the ‘50s weren’t really so boring. For our parents it would have been a welcome respite from the hardships of the war years and, as the exhibition shows, a time to enjoy some of the fruits that emerged out of the turbulence.
The exhibition exemplifies the period when Art Deco, which flourished after the First World War, segued into Mid-Century Modern. As Art Deco was a product of industrialisation leading up to the 1914-1918 war, Mid-Century Modern reflected the cultural influences and industrial developments leading up to and following the Second World War.
In design terms American Mid-Century Modern, in which Australia shared, benefited from exciting new materials such as moulded and shaped plywood, fibreglass, wire mesh and synthetic resins. And the refugees who flocked from war-torn Europe took with them the design influences that the war had interrupted. Foremost among these was the German Bauhaus School that combined crafts and the fine arts.
Objects by the acclaimed designers Charles and Ray Eames, Henry Dreyfuss, Dorothy Wright Liebes and Raymond Loewy all feature, while the household names Levi Strauss and Mattel are profiled through displays of fashion and children’s toys. Many of those designs are still commonplace today – just visit Ikea! And who can believe Barbie is over 50?
The design aesthetic which coalesced into Californian style emphasised taking the indoors outdoors and creating products to complement the lifestyle. The work of one of architecture’s greats, Frank Lloyd Wright, whose life spanned the period, had been greatly influenced by Japanese architecture, and was an early exponent of linking the interior with nature.