Bobbye Tigerman, assistant Curator of Decorative Arts & Design at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is on a post-installation high. The last five years of her career, along with head curator Wendy Kaplan, have been spent visiting libraries, museums, and octogenarian and nonagenarian California designers in order to piece together the most comprehensive retrospective of California mid-century design to date. “California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way” features 350 objects spanning categories of home décor, fashion, sports, advertising, and architecture. Paramount to the exhibit is the faithful recreation of Charles and Ray Eames’s twenty foot-high living room from the iconic 1949 Pacific Palisades home also known as “Case Study House 8.”
The house was built as part of Art & Architecture Magazine’s post-war Case Study Program, which sought to build low cost, high quality, mass-producible homes with readily available industrial components. Though largely glass and steel, Lucia Dewey Atwood, the Eames’s granddaughter, notes that the living room had a “wonderful loving warmth,” a vibe attributed not only to the characters who dwelt within, but to the use of off-the-shelf components in thoughtful and beautiful ways, the connection of the interior space to the outdoors, and to the more than 1800 handmade objects and folk art accumulated over 39 years.
Moving the contents of the living room to LACMA was no small undertaking. It was a strategically planned two year process beginning with the curators’ proposal to the Eames Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving, protecting, and sharing the Eames legacy. “The challenge was finding an interior that had not been altered or updated,” Tigerman said, explaining the attraction to the site. Objects, lined up on bookshelves and arranged on tables, maintained fastidiously to this day by Teresa, the Eames’ trusted housekeeper, had been left either intact or repositioned in a way that Ray would have approved.
“We were ecstatic when LACMA took the contents of the living room,” says Atwood. The serendipitous opportunity afforded the Foundation the space to make necessary renovations to the house including removal of the vinyl asbestos floor tile, implementing a climate/moisture control system, and fortifying the window frames which had undergone damage in some of L.A.’s more powerful earthquakes. Packing up the living room, once a daunting undertaking, became a smooth and faultless operation in the hands of capable crews comprised of curators, archivists, conservationists, and skilled handlers.
“They moved things with the highest standards,” touts Lucia who, though entirely grateful, was also quite nervous during the process. On-site restoration work was done prior to transport to ensure that certain objects would survive the journey. In addition, to safeguard against potential infestation, all organic materials such as textiles and books were stored in a freezer for five days prior to finding a temporary home at the museum.
Though awed by the larger and historically significant furnishings at the house, Tigerman was enamored with the Eames’s collections of smaller objects often brought back from travels abroad. “What was most interesting to me were the well-made and humble objects such as little bird sculptures,” she says. From these anonymous carvings to a pair of wooden leopards once belonging to director Billy Wilder, Tigerman says it is impossible to put a monetary value on the contents of the space because the provenance of each piece is irreplaceable.
This long and rewarding project has left Tigerman invigorated and deeply educated about California designers. She is presently putting the last edits on a handbook that features 141 bios and images of important California craftspeople, designers, and manufacturers. Of the designers she was lucky to meet, Tigerman says, “Their spirit and creativity has not diminished.” Of Charles and Ray Eames, however, she’d love to ask one last question: “What creation are you most proud of?”
“California Design” is part of Pacific Standard Time, an unprecedented collaboration of cultural institutions across Southern California telling the story of the origin of the LA art and design scene. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty.
For highlights from the exhibit, check out this California Design: Living in a Modern Way slide show.
To watch a fun time lapse video of the packing process, click here.
To find our more about the Eames Foundation, click here.