“MONOTONE DOES NOT signal class (at least in Southern California),” writes designer Lorraine Wild in Louise Sandhaus’s recent survey Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design, 1936–1986. Wild’s observation, like many others in this captivating, dayglo-jacketed book, celebrates a visual history of an environment that seems to counter the stringent, sometimes monotone rules of both life and design.
In organizing the five decades, two urban centers, multiple styles, and varied media covered in Earthquakes, Sandhaus, a graphic designer herself, was inspired by architectural critic Reyner Banham, a fellow author who tried, and then stopped trying, to lasso an anarchic location. As Banham explained in his 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, traditional forms of historical writing just didn’t work for Southern California’s built environment. So he invented his own categories, like “Surfurbia” and “Autopia.” Sandhaus likewise divides her book into four not exactly chronological or geographical sections: “Sunbaked Modernism,” or, how European modernism morphed when it hit the Pacific; “Industry & the Indies,” the links between experimental film, motion graphics, and early video games; “Sixties alt Sixties,” radical nuns! drugs! colors!; and “California Girls,” perhaps the most unorthodox section — an unabashed love letter to the female designers who preceded her.
Earthquakes brightens the spotlight Southern California’s cultural history has enjoyed in recent years. It builds on delightful and thorough surveys such as the 2011 LACMA exhibition California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, and its subsequent pocket-sized directory, Handbook of California Design, 1930-1965: Craftspeople, Designers, Manufacturers, as well as several other new and important histories and monographs. However, this book offers a more freewheeling take. There are unfiltered opinions, personal histories, fantasies, and some fierce ardor. As she explains, her criteria for which examples of design to include was “based on little more than the way the heart quickens when it encounters something radiant, wonderful, and new.”
Sandhaus describes her selections as “a dinner party that serves only desserts,” noting that the book doesn’t aim to be straight history, critical theory, or a yardstick of impact. This caveat promises elisions, subjectivity, and most importantly: pleasure. So, there is an unrestrained enthusiasm that Earthquakes strives to make contagious, launching readers into this glimmering pool full of baroque typography and biomorphic abstractions, and drenching them in the acidic melt of Endless Summer orange and pink. (It’s rather unfortunate when books about visual culture undergo a reverse alchemy, spinning gold into straw.)
In terms of the book’s creative design, it comes close to what the medium allows for such dives, with full-bleed images, a tailored typeface, eclectic patterned borders, a tactile shuffle of paper stocks, and color scans of source material. Tip for authors: Don’t just quote liberally, reproduce whole excerpts in their original forms, suntanned pages and all. Examples of this tactic range from Alvin Lustig’s 1958 “California Modern” essay, splayed open in its original small hardback form, small serif font appropriately serious, to the unmargined block of slender bubble-lettered text from a 1970 issue of Arts in Society designed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville.
Besides the well-trafficked areas of midcentury modern design and vivid ’60s concert posters, which Earthquakes covers with a keen and unpredictable eye, the book delves into the lesser-known history of motion graphics in the chapter “Industry & the Indies.” This section tracks the unique meeting of the commercial world with the avant-garde, revealing television’s influence on typography, and connecting the dots between, for example, 1930s stop-motion animation and TRON. As Sandhaus shows, similar types of colorful geometric shapes and patterns danced through the experimental 1940s films of Harry Smith, oozed in liquid-light paintings projected at 1960s art happenings, and then reappeared in the sharpened title graphics of Tempest, an early video arcade game released in 1981 by northern California’s Atari.
Then there’s the case for the Californianess of this graphic culture, for which the book exuberantly argues. Sandhaus playfully intersperses full-page landscape photographs from the 1971 book Beautiful California throughout to remind us that while this is about startling innovation, it is also about place. A place that looks different enough from the East Coast or Europe so as to suggest that life itself is different here. A place where strict Swiss modernism is doused with color and adorned with playful tchotchkes until it succumbs to what Wild calls a “folk-arts/modernist mind-meld.”
The boosterism could seem cliché, but for the confessions of designer after designer arriving from elsewhere — Europe or the East Coast, mostly — and finding their expectations met by a very different set of possibilities (including Sandhaus herself, who came from Boston). As Denise Gonzales Crisp is quoted in the book, “[…] in California, many [such] impossible things occur routinely.”
Homing in on one particular graphic element, Wild’s excellent essay, “Orange,” also gives credence to the myths of Western aesthetic difference, via an anatomy of the bright sunrise of Pantone 165. “Orange,” she writes, “provided some sort of dividing line between the Euro-modernists of the East Coast and their (perceived) less-serious West Coast relations.” She cites the bold colors of ads, posters, and billboards as influences on designers from Saul Bass to Corita Kent, and notes an overall inversion in what signified taste and class in California.
However, the acknowledgement of “California” as marketing also serves to sweep up some of the confetti. Lustig put it well in 1947, when he wrote in his “California Modern” essay reproduced in this book:
It is common practice today to place the word “California” in front of almost any vagrant word and thus achieve a magic combination hopefully intended to make the heart jump and the purse strings fly open.
The heart-jumping allure only grew from then on though, especially for San Francisco in its psychedelic heyday. But Sandhaus includes designs that disclose how, for some, the state was still distant from the promised land: Black Panther revolutionary posters by Emory Douglas, ads for design office Boston & Boston — showing the African-American Boston brothers posing in provocative reappropriations of racist stereotypes — and feminist posters and graphics for the Los Angeles Woman’s Building.
One jarring example of brave new design colliding with stale mores can be seen in a 1970 poster made by De Bretteville during her time teaching and helping to found the School of Graphic Design at the California Institute of the Arts that read:
If the designer is to make a deliberate contribution to society, he must be able to integrate all he can learn about behavior and resources, ecology and human needs; taste and style just aren’t enough.
The above methodology has proved sustainable — from the Eames office to today’s human-centered “design thinking” practices employed by tech companies. Fortunately, a designer’s default gender (see “he” above) was rapidly going out of style. De Bretteville apparently agreed, leaving one year later to found the Women’s Design Program at CalArts, and eventually leaving the school to found the Woman’s Building and its Women’s Graphic Center.
To track the many flights of styles and ideas, Sandhaus includes rainbow-hued flow charts for each chapter, illustrating connections between who taught or hired whom, sources of influence, and collaborative groupings. Thus we can see how many degrees of separation divide, say, the work of German emigrant avant-garde filmmaker Oskar Fischinger from Robert Abel & Associates’ groundbreaking 1975 7 Up commercial (answer: three), or, even more surprisingly, that between Josef Albers and psychedelic poster artist Victor Moscoso (answer: one — Albers was his teacher). But lineage is also predominantly male in these creative circles, which is why the final chapter serves as such an important corrective.
Within “California Girls” is a short work of fiction by designer Denise Gonzales Crisp in which she imagines a young female designer in the coffee shop of a remote hotel between LA and the Bay Area. While sitting there, she excitedly observes every female designer she admires — from Ray Eames and Corita Kent to Deborah Sussman and April Greiman — gather for an impromptu meeting of creative minds. They embark on a mystical boat ride on which they encourage the young woman to follow her path. It may sound merely like a surreal fantasy of heroine-worship, but such imaginings can be potent, offering needed support to the progeny of lesser-known histories.
The time span of Earthquakes’ coverage — essentially from a few years before World War II caused a huge manufacturing and population boom in California to a couple of years after the national reelection of the state’s movie star-turned-president — was incredibly transformative. The designs collected in this book reflect a place where people had come to change, and change again. Such rapid transition seemed foreboding to some. When designer Gere Kavanaugh chose to come to California in the 1960s, from Memphis via Detroit, a friend warned her: “If the earthquakes don’t get you, the mudslides will. And if not that, it’s the fires and the riots.” She came; nothing got her. That which made some people uneasy caused others to flourish, and if the resulting graphic culture is a testament, it was a rampant thriving.
Published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.