A few days before seeing the Orange County Museum of Art’s “The Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury,” I happened to find myself in a Riverside antique mall, surrounded by claw-foot cabinets, cut crystal punch bowls, floral-print china sets and curling pewter candelabras, remarking with a friend on the novelty, coming from Los Angeles, of the near complete absence of right angles. Indeed, but for the occasional martini shaker, you’d have thought modernism never actually made it to Riverside. (More likely, its evidence has been long since extracted by designers from L.A. and Palm Springs.) Having both spent formative home-decorating years in the vicinity of Silver Lake vintage shops, this friend and I have discussed the hipster hegemony of midcentury modernist design with some exasperation in the past — “Who actually lives in these places?” she once demanded, waving the L.A. Times style supplement, “And where do they keep all their crap?!” — and we agreed that its absence at the antique shop was perversely refreshing.

“The Birth of the Cool” didn’t diminish my soft spot for floral-print china — that may be a permanent affliction — but it did much to redeem the modernist aesthetic, in my mind, from its unfortunate patina of snobbery, largely by giving it context: situating these now fetishized chairs and coffee tables in relation to concurrent developments in architecture, visual art, graphic design, music, animation, film and, for that matter, politics. It was a heady time in American history, marked by the sharp ascendancy of the middle class, and if there’s any one common thread, it’s a basic faith in the tastes of the common man: a democratic spirit that happened to be paired — in California as nowhere else — with unprecedented powers of production and distribution. Most of this work drew on European modernism and other reservoirs of high culture, but spoke to the masses. It was meant to be accessed, acquired, emulated and enjoyed across the spectrum.

The show also made me giddily proud to be a Californian. “More modern houses per acre than anyplace else in the U.S., a greater concentration of sports cars than any other section .?.?. and a flock of long-legged girls with year-round tans” — how can you beat that? (This from a 1954 Life magazine layout — “California’s Bold Look” — featured on the opening pages of the show’s catalog.) Flush, at the close of World War II, with capital, confidence and communications technologies, but culturally inchoate and happily free from the burden of historical memory, California put a face to the nation’s most optimistic moment, then broadcast that face worldwide.

Dave Hickey, who moved from Texas to Santa Monica in the early 1950s, describes the climate beautifully in one of the catalog’s many fine essays. “It was a gift of circumstance,” he writes, “a happy accident, a comfortable place, relatively affluent and easily traversed. It was very quiet, as I remember, and absolutely secret, culturally isolated, ill formed, and magnificently disorganized — an imported jungle of tribal enclaves, autonomous subcultures, ghettos, cults, scenes, and secrets that blurred into one another at the edges. There were serious and gifted people, of course, engaged in serious cultural endeavors, but there was no high culture as such, just an unofficial scene or two. For artists, writers, and musicians, however, there was good weather, work on the movie sets and in the recording studios, and all the artistic freedoms that attend upon absolute neglect.”

The figures represented in the exhibition — Charles and Ray Eames, Julius Shulman, Lorser Feitelson, Karl Benjamin, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, William Claxton, Saul Bass, Ward Kimball, Jules Engel and Oskar Fischinger, to name a few — are a varied lot from multiple disciplines who probably wouldn’t have seen themselves comprising anything so coherent as a movement. It is a testament to the show’s curatorial intelligence that it marshals them so convincingly under such a loose and potentially flippant rubric: the “broad cultural Zeitgeist,” in curator Elizabeth Armstrong’s words, that was “the cool.” It is a complicated concept: easy to identify — in the soaring lines, say, of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22; the dancing shapes of a Lorser Feitelson painting; film stills of Sean Connery’s James Bond; or anything associated with Miles Davis (from whose classic 1957 album the show takes its name) — but difficult to pinpoint, and the show explores it with commendable rigor, charting not only its artistic dimension, but its psychological, sociological and political aspects as well. It is ultimately, in this context, less an aesthetic than a posture: a social code (largely fantasized) that maneuvered one through the newfound affluence of American life while steeling against its unspoken dangers.

“Its message,” Thomas Hine writes in “Cold War Cool,” the catalog’s most incisive essay on the subject, “was that the big things were under control. Everything is under control. Facing, as we did in 1962, the prospect of nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis — and not blinking — was pretty cool.” Its efficacy as social and political policy, however, was limited. “The easy confidence that’s part of the cool style,” he continues, “can easily lead to overconfidence. You can start to believe that the economy can be ‘fine-tuned’ like an audio component system. You start to believe that military victories can be won with ‘surgical strikes.’ Did cool get us into Vietnam? That’s arguable, but along with feminism and some assassin’s bullets, Vietnam did help bring an end to the confidence without which one cannot be cool.”

The virtue of the show isn’t its novelty — this is hardly buried history; there’s little here you haven’t seen the likes of before — but the skill with which it connects the dots, drawing a broad spectrum of phenomena into a concise portrait of the age. It’s smaller than you might expect given its scope, but thoughtfully balanced and beautifully installed. Indeed, the democratic spirit of the era appears to have extended to the installation itself: few museum shows in recent memory have felt quite so user friendly, integrating a wide spectrum of media (photographs, paintings, furniture, decorative objects, toys, video, audio and text) in a way that feels neither gratuitous nor patronizing. (Artist Jim Isermann, architect Frederick Fisher and graphic designer Lorraine Wild all contributed to the design.) After a seductive prologue — a 1960 Porsche Roadster parked in the museum’s lobby — the show begins on a celebratory note, with a wall-size projection of an enchanting 1957 black-and-white film by the Eameses involving a succession of spinning tops, bobbing and swaying to a jazz soundtrack. Each subsequent room — devoted to a timeline, decorative arts, painting, jazz and animation, and architecture, respectively — is niftily outfitted: A narrow, three-level platform extends into the center of one room for the elegant display of Eames chairs; a bed of beige gravel winds both inside and outside the gallery, beyond a glass wall, for patio furniture and pottery; freestanding walls covered in taut, brown burlap sport the brightly colored, hard-edged paintings of Benjamin, Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, Helen Lundeberg and John McLaughlin; and a “jazz lounge” offers wall-to-wall carpeting, George Nelson paper globe hanging lamps and sleek Eero Saarinen Tulip chairs to enjoy the piped-in Miles Davis and the quintessentially cool images of jazz photographer William Claxton. Also included in this room is a bank of video monitors offering one of the show’s keenest pleasures: animated work by Kimball, Fischinger, Engel (creator of the delightful Gerald McBoing-Boing, a boy who speaks not in words but in sound effects), and Chuck Jones, whose Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote antics — the slice of his oeuvre featured here — grow only weirder and more existential with each new encounter.

The recent transformation of the Eameses’ vision — high modernism for the masses — into a signature of urban affluence is an unspoken irony throughout the exhibition, raising significant questions about what one can in fact presume about the tastes of the common man, but it doesn’t diminish the pleasure of the objects themselves. The Case Study houses that appear in Julius Shulman’s crystalline photographs are perched on million-dollar real estate today, but they were designed to be models of affordability and efficiency, and these impulses — one would hope — persist in their own right, beyond the fluctuations of aesthetics.

BIRTH OF THE COOL: CALIFORNIA ART, DESIGN AND CULTURE AT MIDCENTURY | Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122 or www.ocma.net | Through January 6

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