For a young boy who grew up in the suburban Midlands, the west coast of the USA is really the America of my imagination, far more so than the refined cities of the Eastern seaboard, the vast expanses of the rural states or any of the other myriad landscapes to be found between sea and shining sea.
And so Louise Sandhaus’ wonderful book of Californian graphic design between 1936 and 1986 is of particular interest, as it explores the visual language which has helped define the way we see the sun-kissed state. It is not, as Louise freely admits in the introduction, a comprehensive study; rather she advises we think of the book as “a dinner party that serves only desserts… The sugary offerings within these pages range from the obvious to the obscure… a heavily curated selection based on little more than the way the heart quickens when the eye encounters something radiant, wonderful, and new.”
The book took ten years to put together and includes books, magazines, posters, album artwork, title sequences and signage. One of the curatorial starting points comes from the California-based artist Billy Al Bengston, who once said: “Fuck New York. Fuck Europe. We’ll figure out what art is.” The historical bookends Louise uses are the deigns of Merle Armitage in the mid-1930s and April Greiman’s Does It Make Sense? 1986 issue of Design Quarterly which is described here as “the first piece of design to embrace the potential of the Apple Macintosh.”
As you’d expect this is a bright, colourful and celebratory book but there’s some impressively (and refreshingly) unpretentious design writing here too. With kind permission of the author and the publishers Thames & Hudson, below is an excerpt from Louise’s introductory essay…
Text excerpted from Louise Sandhaus: Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires And Riots – California & Graphic Design 1936 – 1986
“Books on the history of graphic design abound…Within this lively discussion, graphic design specific to California has yet to receive the spotlight, despite a rich and extensive history that, for the most part, confirms all the stereotypes and expectations of a freewheeling West Coast culture where anything goes and everyone does her or his own thing. The California New Wave aesthetic drew national attention in the eighties, yet exciting and revolutionary work from prior decades has remained hidden in plain sight.
“No book has set out to capture more widely the particular and visually ecstatic graphic design production of the Golden State. So this volume aims to help set the situation right: it offers a raucous gathering of more than 250 examples of smart, offbeat, innovative, groundbreaking graphic design projects from a distinctive yet underacknowledged heyday of the so-called Left Coast between 1936 and 1986 (which in no way suggests a lack of attention-worthy work outside that time span).
“So what makes California design deserving of special attention, and what, in the first place, makes it by definition “Californian?” Here’s my theory: California has no terra firma—earthquakes, mudslides, fires, and the occasional civil uprising cause incessant upheaval and change. California is fluid. It has a sense of humor. It is a place of boundless reinvention and innovation, where the entertainment, aerospace, and high-tech industries all found a cozy home. A mecca of consumerism, it is also a place of great creativity, freedom, and social consciousness, where the status quo undergoes constant renovation. Without solid ground, tradition lacks secure footing; old rules go out the door and new motivations rush in, resulting in new and vibrant forms.”
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