A new exhibition in London looks at the contribution Californian design has made to the way we live. Exhibits range from Silicon Valley technology to hippy-era posters. The curators say it all illustrates how California has shaped our attitudes and aspirations worldwide.
If the Design Museum in London decided to chart the Californian aesthetic in every aspect of our lives, the exhibition could fill its smart new premises several times over. The movie industry? Rock music? Architecture? Food?
But the organisers’ approach is clear in the full title – California: Designing Freedom.
Justin McGuirk, chief curator at the museum, said: “Californian tools have transformed our lives – from personal computers and laptops to smart phones and social media. Most of those things were created in Silicon Valley or at least popularised there.
“When people come to the show they will find that impact documented – there’s a lot to excite people who love technology and computers.
“But we also look at the history of an idea: California has specialised in democratising those tools. It put design and technology in our hands that used to belong only in the realm of the military and the corporation. We carry computers and microchips in our pockets in a way that has empowered us all.”
Around half the exhibition documents the way technology has miniaturised and changed in the last 40 years.
The Xerox Star workstation may now raise a smile with its clunky design but in the early 1980s it was a real advance. The Apple Macintosh personal computer of 1984 also features: in some ways it was similar but it added what the exhibition calls “a layer of emotion” with its greeting at start-up and fun new icons (parents should however be ready to explain what a floppy disk was).
The size of the Hewlett Packard HP-35 pocket calculator suggests that in 1972 pockets were roomier than today. But McGuirk says it represents a watershed moment.
“This was design driving the engineering. Before this point, the engineers produced a product and the designers just put a neat shell around it: this was saying that the concept of easy portability was important. In 1981 you get the Osborne 1 microcomputer, the first portable computer – though it seems more like a suitcase to us.
“Remember that until 1972 most silicon chips were going into Polaris missiles. So a revolution had happened. By 1991 the drive to portability is central to how something like the Apple PowerBook laptop is marketed – the appeal is freedom and being able to do anything elsewhere.”
The first mouse, the development of the iPhone and the early days of a feasible graphical user interface are also part of the story.
McGuirk says all have identifiably West Coast assumptions behind them.
“The attitude to computers in, say, New York was totally different. In California it was much more about self-expression.”
Co-curator Brendan McGetrick says not everything in the show depends on a battery or a convenient power socket.
“If you look at the story chronologically, a good place to start is the Whole Earth Catalog which came out in 1968. The publisher was Stewart Brand and it was a tool in book form to promote communal living. It provided information on so many things – Steve Jobs later called it Google 35 years before Google.
“One of the things the Whole Earth Catalog did was change attitudes to computers. They’d been seen as tools of the military and large corporations but Stewart Brand saw they could be appropriated by individuals and small groups to apply pressure to the status quo.”
McGetrick also likes the Captain America Chopper, which has gone down in pop history as the drop-handled motorbike famous from the 1969 film Easy Rider.
“Part of the influence of California has been the emphasis on customisation. The motorcycle had its wheelbase extended and other work done: it suggested anti-authoritarian or anti-establishment sentiment which is why it was so effective on screen. As a definition of freedom it’s very Californian: two wheels and an open road and being able to project your own identity.”
The impulse towards freedom is everywhere in the show.
It contains an early example of the gay rainbow flag, devised in 1978 in San Francisco by the artist Gilbert Baker who died this year. McGetrick says there’s a link to Silicon Valley: “The flag’s an important product of San Francisco Bay Area culture and Silicon Valley is a big chunk of that area.”
Almost pre-historic by West Coast standards are the late-1960s posters created by Victor Moscoso and Rick Griffin. Often advertising rock concerts, McGetrick says they’re emblematic of the psychedelic culture blossoming in San Francisco at the time.
“They represent LSD’s influence, which was so much part of counter-cultural thinking in California,” he says. “Originally they were simply promotion for concerts but they expressed the aesthetic of people who were attending and of the bands themselves. All these years later they’re a kind of shorthand for the hippy era.”
Both curators see the hunger for personal freedom and expression as the unifying factor for their show, from 1960s civil rights posters to a brand new Waymo self-driving car from Google’s parent company Alphabet.
McGuirk says some design in California is now moving towards the immaterial.
“The screen has been dominant but in many cases even the screen will become redundant. The major shift now is towards voice-activated services, as with the Amazon Echo.
“The design of that gives the user something to relate to but in theory, you need never even look at it. So the Californian history of design and of visual art will move into new areas, as it always has done. But it’s not going to go away.”
California: Designing freedom is at the Design Museum in London until 15 October.