California at London’s Design Museum

Tools — that’s what Justin McGuirk, co-curator of California: Designing Freedom (at London’s Design Museum until 15 October 2017), says the show is all about. ‘Our theme is tools of personal liberation’, he says. ‘California has specialised in democratising tools, from the 1970s onwards’. That proposition seems straightforward, but it also raises questions.

The wall blurb as you enter offers another proposition: ‘Designed in California is not a style but an attitude’. That attitude has long been can-do — optimistic, individualist, un-hung up on authority or convention, and often ‘stoked’ to be outdoors. The show presents bright California icons such as skateboards going back to 1951 (a chunk of wood with nailed-on wheels), surfboards, a first Barbie Doll (1959) and the Wham-O Regular  


A replica of Hardy and Vaughn’s Captain America Chopper with the driverless Waymo car. Photo Herbert Wright

Frisbee (1968). A star item is a replica of the Captain America Chopper from seminal drop-out-dudes-on-bikes film Easy Rider (1969). Unlike the film company, this show credits the African-American motorcycle masters who built it, Ben Hardy and Clifford Vaughan


There’s a lot more rooted in the counter-culture revolution — some parts feel like a reprise of the V&A’s recent show about the 1960s, You Say You Want a Revolution (reviewed here). 

Emory Douglas, Afro-American Solidarity with the oppressed people of the world

Emory Douglas poster from 1969.
Collection of the Oakland Museum of California 

In a zone called Tools of Self-Expression and Rebellion, we see socio-political revolution voiced in design, such as Emery Douglas’s militant Black Panther artwork (1968-71), and the original Rainbow Flag (1978) by Gilbert Baker which would soon morph into the globally-recognised gay banner. Psychedelic gig posters by Victor Moscoso from San Francisco are way-out trippy (and resonate exactly with those of Hapshash and the Coloured Coats in the Summer of Love’s parallel capital London). Graphic design is applied to an ultimate psychic liberation tool, LSD, in the grid-repeating tiny icons of acid blotters from the 1970s. It pushes beyond the edge in the 1990s when Ray-Gun magazine’s David Carson, who started on surf titles, once put a Bryan Ferry interview he found boring into the Zapf Dingbats font. It replaces letters with symbols.

The show homes in on the off-grid commune movement and the electronic nerd-driven dawn of personal computing, in both of which Stewart Brand played a key role. A copy of Brandt’s Whole Earth Catalog, the thick product guide-come-environmentalist manual published 1968-72, sits next to a geodesic dome frame. Inside it, you can settle on beanbags to watch an instant inflatable dome commune being set up in the Santa Cruz Mountains desert. The hippies who built it frolic on their newly-inflated roof, while a Grateful Dead soundtrack plays. This frontiers lifestyle alternative to settled society still calls today’s city types into the desert – but in a conveniently packaged kind of way. The week-long Burning Man Festival started on a San Francisco beach in 1986 but we see a more recent ariel view of the ephemeral city that hosts its 65,000-odd participants — in next-door state Nevada.

Los Angeles, of course, has a very different sort of urbanism, and this show spotlights it well. Southern California’s post-war freeway system was built as if Robert Moses had been beamed from the inconvenient neighbourhoods of New York into a sun-drenched paradise fully signed up to America’s love affaire with the automobile. Amongst others, it seduced British architectural critic Reyner Banham, who appropriated the word Autopia for the anti-city he saw. We see a clip from the 1972 documentary he made for the BBC, cruising past the Mattel toy factory, as a dashboard cartridge tape tells him is that Barbie Dolls and Hot Wheel toys are made there. He was not the first to identify a new urbanism out West. In 1968, Robert Venuri, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour had seen it in Las Vegas, from which came Learning from Las Vegas (1972) — but again, that’s Nevada and this time not in the show. What we do get is the film Environmental Communications Looks at Los Angeles (1977), shown as the creative collective designed it to be seen — on a big screen wth monitors either side. That references Tom Wolfe, who said that LA is seen through windscreen and side-mirrors. It is a collide-a-scope of the city, its crazy billboards and suburban sprawl,  glimpses of Hispanic street culture and ariel film of the new outsize Century Plaza City tower (designed by Twin Towers architect Minoru Yamasaki), all to a soundtrack spanning from Handel to the Beach Boys.


The film Environmental Communications Looks at Los Angeles runs in a 3-screen configuration that references Tom Wolfe. Photo: Herbert Wright

Pasadena-based artist Syd Mead saw the city differently. Some of his 1980s sci-fi fantasy gouache works defined the urban look of Blade Runner, and his LA street of 2019 is no longer a New World city but a moody, neon-jazzed extrapolation of older urbanisms – New York meets Tokyo, the LA of film noir. Although the Design Museum show doesn’t make the point, it’s interesting that the reality of LA in 2017 is less and less Autopia. The vast city without a centre now has a vibrant downtown, it is densifying, a metro system is spreading ever deeper across it. People are winning against cars. Those freeways weren’t tools of liberation, they just became traffic jams.

Right after he directed Blade Runner, Ridley Scott directed the ad for Apple for its 1984 Mac launch, which we see in this show. He brilliantly flips the change-the-world vision of Steve Jobs into a neo-noir smash-the-system rallying call, all in one minute. It was actually shot in England, but the personal computing revolution and all that’s followed largely belongs to California. 

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 02.27.10

An original Google office neon. Photo Luke Hayes


The same year, cyberculture was mapped out by a conference that Brand organised in the state, attended by the likes off Steve Wozniak. This show is full of gizmos, from early Apples (including an unreleased one) to a Waymo self-driving car and the latest in VR. McGuirk says that companies like Apple and Google ‘don’t look back’ – but he pressured them to get exhibits like an elegant, original, colourful 1998 neon Google sign. 

But what about that earlier California techno-cultural innovation that swept the world – Hollywood? A single item falling right outside the exhibition time-frame is doubly relevant. In 1924, Walt Disney made his first movie Alice’s Day at the Sea, montaging film of a girl onto cartoon. He made it in a garage in North Hollywood. A lot later, garage start-ups would include Hewlett Packard, Apple, and Google. Not all the California tech players are here — where, for example, is Elon Musk, whose Tesla electric cars are made in Fremont and SpaceX HQ is by LAX airport?

The elephant in the room with this show is that digital ‘personal liberation tools’ also turn us into manipulatable shadows — subject to anti-democratic social media forces, grist in the mill of Big Data. Algorithms rule and AI looms. In a Waymo, we won’t even physically be in the driving seat. Californian design has indeed cruised a freeway to the future, but at some multi-level interchange, it may have left the road marked freedom.

(This review by Herbert Wright originally appeared in Blueprint magazine 353, July 2017)

About herbertwright

I am a London-based writer interested in art, architecture, the future and more. I am the author of three non-fiction books. Published articles online appear on
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