“Designed in California”: Tracing the History of Socially Conscious Design

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It has been a complicated year with Trump dropping climate change from the US national security strategy. One environmentally-focused design exhibition, “Designed in California”, might offer a bit of hope when it opens January 27 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

From old Apple prototypes to eco-friendly Charles & Ray Eames furniture design, this show features more than 20 artists and designers to trace the history of socially-conscious design in California from the 1960s to the present.

Hartmut Esslinger Prototype for Apple Macintosh touchscreen tablet

“Exploring the shifting landscape of design in California since the digital revolution, this exhibition focuses on designs that are human-centered, socially conscious and driven by new technological capacity,” writes the curator Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher. “Retreating from the commercialism of Modernism’s ‘good design for all,’ California designers in the 1960s and 1970s sought to design with more political, social and environmental awareness.”

Socially-conscious design came with modernism’s pared-down minimalism and some pieces in the show include print material from the 1970, specifically advertisements for the School of Design at theCalifornia Institute of the Arts, which reads: “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.”

Charles and Ray Eames Eames Conference Room

There are also works by Charles and Ray Eames, a couple and design duo who made modern furniture and architecture from the 1940s to the 1970s. Here, there are photos of the duo’s conference room from 1944, including the Eames conference table, which was revolutionary for its industrial production techniques. At the time, it pushed the boundaries of design to help define the modern furniture aesthetic. The table’s design focused on environmentally-conscious materials, proportion and stability, and in a time when there are space constraint in major cities, the table (which is still mass-produced), is still relevant.

Also on view are back-issues of the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture magazine that ran from 1968 to 1972 and won a National Book Award for its influential essays, diagrams and photos promoting environmentally-conscious tactics in everyday life. The newsprint publication was divided into several categories, including shelter and land use, community and nomadic learning.

Arthur Espenet Carpenter Wishbone chair

The exhibition also features The North Face Oval Intention Tent from 1976, which was the first ever geodesic designed tent available in back-packable form. It was noted to give “the greatest strength with the least material.” It was inspired by Buckminster Fuller, who later got involved in promoting the tent, though it was designed by two California design students, Bruce Hamilton and Mark Erickson.

There are also pieces designed by German designer Hartmut Esslinger, who was hired by Apple in 1982 to turn the company from a Silicon Valley startup into a global brand. He created an industrial design for all Apple products released between 1984 to 1990 to have stripes, a ventilation system and a size-conscious monitor frame, as well as the proper presentation of the Apple logo on the actual desktops, which is seen in his “Prototype for Apple Macintosh touch-screen tablet” from 1984.

Jason Short Solo drone

But just as the history of socially-impactful design are on view, there are some contemporary works from today, like socially-conscious works by design firms Sha Design, which is based in San Francisco helping develop brands, and D-Rev, a non-profit product development company focused on the needs of the poor by providing affordable health technologies.

“The digital revolution has greatly changed design, inspiring new approaches that have helped transform the modern consumer into the digital user,” said Fletcher. “The design on view in this exhibition places California at the center of an evolving and expanding field.”

Lisa Krohn Cyberdesk

Designed in California runs from January 27 to May 27, 2018 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.