In the material world, the past is never dead if you've got cash to burn.
Heads up, retro enthusiasts. This Sunday, Van Nuys-based Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) is putting up $1.4 million in quintessential California art and design on the auction block, including more than 200 of the essential domestic and decorative works of the immediate postwar era — like angular George Nelson desks to clarify your mental clutter, Eames chairs scientifically designed to support the human frame or Natzler plant potters as old as your heirloom tomato seeds.
Twenty-five years ago, when LAMA founder Peter Loughrey was selling antiques in a small storefront on La Brea, postwar furniture sold for hundreds of dollars. But today, Grandma's chaise might end up in a museum (say, in LACMA's “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way” exhibition) and if it's the right kind, go for five figures at auction.
If you can't afford that, you can always, uh, learn in a modern way. More than a few of the works and artists on the block this weekend will be at museums for months to come, including Huntington Library, Craft and Folk Art Museum and the Architecture and Design Museum.
So we asked LACMA decorative arts curator Wendy Kaplan, who's responsible for the greatest concentration of postwar design in any Southland museum, and editor of a superlative exhibition catalogue, to explain to us what makes five of the lots at LAMA so cool.
5. The Little Lamp that Could
Item: Greta Magnusson Grossman's Table lamp
Minimum bid: $2,500.
What distinguishes postwar decorative art from the furniture that preceded it is a simple formula. Find the essential use of an object, realize it with everyday industrial material, and add a patina of California day-glo style. That's what Swedish emigre Greta Magnusson did with this desk lamp, focusing the light with a cone-shaped lampshade, and bathing the forms in peppy turquoise and gold. Magnusson designed this lamp for the Ralph O. Smith company, a mom-and-pop operation working out of a garage in Burbank. Only a few hundred of these lamps were made, but that didn't stop Magnusson for receiving recognition for her design. “After the war, when the European economy was decimated, a lot of small companies took advantage of this lack of international competition,” says Kaplan. “It wasn't unusual to find tiny companies in magazines or the MoMA's Good Design show. It's endearing and inspiring.”
4. The Station Wagon-Sized Vase
Item: Gertrud and Otto Natzler's Monumental vase
Minimum bid: $100,000.
Contrary to popular belief, “living in a modern way” didn't mean building with the newest stuff around. True, in the '40s and '50s, many designers built with new materials such as fiberglass and aircraft plywood. But that's because they were cheap surplus, leftovers from wartime. If anything, the aphorism refers to the efficient use of whatever's durable and inexpensive in the service of craft. That explains the volcanic glazes and hand-pounded ceramics of the Viennese husband-and-wife team of Gertrud and Otto Natzler. LACMA has an enormous collection of their works, most of which are simple, shallow dishware. But when the duo made enormous vases too big to fire at home, such as this piece, they let them air dry until they could use a kiln at a Zionist retreat in Simi Valley. “Two of the great, great potters,” Kaplan adds. “Usually the guy does the throwing and girl does the glazes, but with them it's the other way around.”
3. Sitting In a Modern Way
Item: Charles and Ray Eames' DCW prototype
Minimum bid: $100,000.
“This is really the ur-chair,” says Kaplan. “It's not to be used. It's very fragile. It is the beginning of the most iconic chair of the twentieth century.” Charles and Ray Eames, they of groovy cabinets, desks, homes and excellent educational videos, unveiled this “homemade experiment” at a press conference in New York in 1945 after five years of research and development, beginning with their work with Eero Saarinen at a design competition at MoMA, and made possible by Charles' access to materials and technology developed while working as a contractor for the Navy. The furniture designers at Herman Miller liked what they saw and commissioned tens of thousands of chairs. The rest is history. “The big innovation here was the central spine, which attaches the seat to the backrest,” says Kaplan. “There was never a spine like this on a chair before. A few years later, the Eameses were designing those molded plywood chairs you see everywhere. I was just in Japan, and I sat in an Eames chair at a McDonald's in Tokyo. It's a design that really endures.” Kaplan sighs. “How I wish we had this one. Somebody, please, buy this for me.”
2. The Other, Other Car
Item: Raymond Loewy's Studebaker Avanti
Minimum bid: $60,000.
A quick story about why the first production car without a visible front grill never hit a showroom. “Raymond Loewy was this famous industrial designer who always kept a home in Palm Springs,” explains LAMA Director Peter Loughrey. “When Studebaker asked him to build a fast car with four seats, like a Corvette for the family, Loewy said he'd do it, but only if they opened a design office for him in the desert. So they agreed, and two weeks later, he'd designed this car from scratch. It was remarkable, because today it takes five to seven years to engineer a car. This car had a much larger engine than a Corvette, which was at the time the fastest car you could buy in a showroom, and the large, fiberglass bodies could only be made in factories big enough to produce Corvettes. When GM discovered that Studebaker was essentially going to cut into their market, they threatened the factories with the Corvette account.” And that was that. Though other technical problems plagued the production, the Avanti is among the first cars equipped with modern safety features.
1. The Picture of the Home That Never Was
Item: Julius Shulman chromogenic print of Case Study House #21
Minimum bid: $3,000.
When architect Pierre Koenig was commissioned by Art & Architecture magazine to build two inexpensive model homes for the postwar housing boom, he thought of Le Corbusier's “machine for living in,” and made homes that achieved a kind of harmony between design and use. But after Case Study Houses #21 and #22 were photographed by a young Julius Shulman several years later, the houses became chest-pounding symbols of upper class triumph, playing no small part in the international transmission of California fantasy. To look at Shulman's photographs now is to forget that there were very real problems with the houses. “Lots of people didn't love them,” says Kaplan. “They wanted a house that was a refuge from the world, but they felt exposed. Not everybody wanted all that glass, or no separation between indoor and outdoor. And the practical issues, like keeping spaces clean, or finding out that some materials didn't work so well outside.” Shulman's photographs are an idealization of living in a modern way — and an image of domesticity to which a peculiar breed of renter may aspire.