Cultivating California design

October 31, 2013

Case Study House 22, designed by Pierre Koenig in 1959.
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The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) held a free lecture last week on mid-century California design. Los Angeles curator, Wendy Kaplan had flown into Australia to accompany the exhibition “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way" ( which opens 2 November 2013 at the Queensland Art Gallery. Kaplan gave a fascinating talk on the cultural forces that shaped this influential school of design, and presented several examples of art and architecture (features from the show) to illustrate the iconic aesthetic. 

I am certainly no expert in this field but thoroughly enjoyed the night and wanted to share a bit of a summary, and extrapolate this to the world of branding.

The mid 20th century was a golden era for California. The population was stepping out of the shadows of World War II and the great depression just prior, filling people with new found optimism, purpose and the intoxicating power to purchase after years of austerity. The millions of itinerant workers who had relocated to California (the centre of shipping and aerospace industries during the war) had been enchanted by the generous climate, and made plans to stay on and establish a life there. As the population doubled, single-family households also began to emerge, further driving demand for houses and furnishings.

With European and Asian suppliers temporarily out of action, conditions ripened for local manufacturing. Californians looked to their recent advancements in military engineering, and found new applications for these materials and methods in serving a growing consumer culture.

3 surfers at the Palos Verdes Cove, 1940.
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The Eames Lounge Chair Wood is one such example. The chair was designed using technology for molding plywood – a material that served as leg splints during the war.

Fiberglass was another manufacturing breakthrough. Developed for aircraft radar domes, one of fiberglass’ first civilian uses was for water sports. Unwieldy wooden surfboards were superseded by lightweight fiberglass versions that enabled its popularity to spread, and become one of the states unofficial emblems.


1950’s Levi’s advertisement.
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From a branding perspective it is interesting to see how success similarly depended on rapid adaption and ingenuity. Levi’s is a great example of nimble thinking. As the focus of life in California shifted from labour to leisure, the brand repositioned itself to suit. Levi’s blue jeans had a history in utility wear; the uniform of lumberjacks, railroad workers and cowboys. This legacy made it a natural choice for those involved in national defense. As the war effort wound up, Levi’s was at risk of loosing relevance. People were looking for ways to assert their new found freedoms, and not anchor themselves to the recent past. Levi’s took a bold move that paid off, they restyled the brand as a casual wear retailer, and spoke directly to a female audience for the first time.

This example highlights the importance of responsive evolution. Levi’s identified an opportunity (a cultural shift and resulting ideal) and used it to give new meaning to their core strength – blue jeans. By applying their ingenuity to an area in which they had an established competitive advantage, they ensured they not only played, but played to win.