Using 100 Objects, SFMOMA Plans to Showcase California’s Design Spirit

“Technology has spawned a futuristic and progressive view of enhanced productivity and leisure that is led by Californians.”

Designed California exhibition SFMOMA
The North Face, Oval Intention tent, 1976; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of Martin Zemitis / SlingFin, Inc. Photo: Don Ross

California is known for its sunshine and laid-back lifestyles, but it may not be the first place that comes to mind as a hub of design. An upcoming exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) takes a look at the Golden State’s creative contributions and the evolution of its products since the start of the digital revolution. On view from January 27 to May 27, Designed in California highlights more than 100 unique and socially conscious objects derived from technological advances, most notably in Silicon Valley. According to Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, the museum’s Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design, “Technology has spawned a futuristic and progressive view of enhanced productivity and leisure that is led by Californians.” Now, she says, is the right moment to evaluate key pieces made in the region.

The works on display will be presented in reverse chronological order, going back to the late 1950s, encompassing instantly recognizable commercial successes like Apple’s iPod and lesser-known products such as an early mobile device developed by General Magic, a simple handmade mug by Heath Ceramics, and Arthur Espenet Carpenter’s Wishbone chair. Yet whether the objects on display are high-tech or handcrafted, Dunlop Fletcher notes key unifying themes are the spirit of innovation and a desire to repudiate the status quo. “Californians are known for a more risk-taking and less tradition-bound approach to living.”

The pieces on view represent the designers’ desires to be both in harmony with nature and on the cutting edge. It’s a tricky balancing act, but one that Californians seem to have largely figured out. As Dunlop Fletcher explains: “Both the connected and unconnected in the exhibition embody the sentiment that each individual makes a difference in contributing to our economic, social, or environmental well-being. We present designs that fully embrace artificial intelligence and designs critical of technology—as well as designs that include a bit of both.”

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