London Design Museum’s “California” Shines Bright, Makes Few Waves

The new exhibition California: Designing Freedom explores the global ubiquity of Californian design and ideas in everyday life—but rarely dives deep.

California: Designing Freedom at London’s Design Museum. Photography courtesy London Design Museum

I’ve never visited California, but it has often visited me. Many of the US’s most ubiquitous cultural exports, from Hollywood to Hip Hop, Steinbeck to Snoop Dogg, Beat poets to the Beach Boys, have flown out of California and permeated Western popular culture. For this reason, I smugly thought I’d seen it all before arriving at California: Designing Freedom at London’s Design Museum. I was, of course, mistaken.

California, the second major exhibition at the recently re-opened museum, isn’t interested in surveying  design produced within the prolific state. Instead, it explores  how design originating in California has changed the way we live across the globe. Displayed in a large open-plan room, the exhibition is loosely spread out into five sections, with titles like ‘Say What You Want,’ ‘Go Where You Want,’ and ‘Join Who You Want.’ Hopeful mottos like these rippled through Haight-Ashbury in the ’60s and would later re-emerge south of the bay in Silicon Valley, sounding more like commands from the tech mecca than slogans for a hippie future.

Befitting the theme of freedom, there is no explicitly defined progression through the exhibition, although the route I take seems to be the same as all the other visitors (perhaps our choices aren’t so free after all….), beginning with the most politically charged section of the show: ‘Say What You Want’. Curators Justin McGuirk and Brendan McGetrick avoid the mistakes of other design history narratives, which often exclude the work of minority groups from the canon: here, Gilbert Baker’s LGBT pride Rainbow Flag (1978) glows alongside the hard graphic lines of the Black Panther’s revolutionary artist and Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas.

LSD tabs and the swirly fonts of California dreamin’ days follow, before the show gains its stride and the techno-utopia takes over. ‘See What You Want’ takes us through early sketches of Blade Runner sets, then reminds us that we’re actually living in the future with Google Glass, Snap Spectacles and Oculus Rift headsets that are sure to flood the market soon.

Gilbert Baker’s LGBT pride Rainbow Flag (1978).

More exciting, however, is the dive into the Apple archive in the ‘Make What You Want’ section. The PowerBook 150, the company’s first laptop, is impressively sleek for its twenty-five years, and the accompanying advert is an early indicator of the company’s marketing nous; the poster contains a single-worded headline reading, you guessed it, ‘Freedom.’

Yet the real showstopper here is not the hardware, but a simple notebook with gridded paper. Susan Kare’s sketchbook, containing original designs for Apple’s cut, paste, and cursor symbols, among others, is surely The Canterbury Tales of our time. For a society growing increasingly fluent in emoji, symbol, and shortcut, Kare’s influence as graphic designer of the original Macintosh OS cannot be understated. Seeing the crudely hand-colored squares forming the cursor symbols that facilitate my writing and (possibly) your reading of this review is a design trip wilder than any Jefferson Airplane poster.

Considering the current political context, plus the migration histories of the state, it seems the curators missed an opportunity to open up debates around design and freedom of movement in California. The work of Estudio Teddy Cruz+ Forman on the San Diego-Tijuana border or playful design responses to the infamous proposed border wall, for example, spring easily to mind.

However, the final section, ‘Join Who You Want,’ does confront one of the pressing sociological issues of our times: the echo chamber. The so-called EdgeRank equation used by Facebook to determine which articles are displayed in a user’s news feed (Σ = Uₑ Wₑ Dₑ ,in case you were wondering) is presented as a design object.  Beside it floats a mesmerizing infographic visualizing the growth of online communities across the planet, as vivid an illustration of the arbitrary nature of borders as any.

The spread of Facebook out of Palo Alto and across the planet neatly illustrates one of the central points of the exhibition, the global ubiquity of Californian design and ideas in everyday life. With every new “smart” object, Twitter redesign, or Blade Runner remake, this influence will only continue to grow. Whether this constitutes a greater ‘freedom,’ however, is clearly another issue. For all its celebration of California’s tech giants, there is scant attention paid to the issues around privacy or data security in the exhibition. As I exit the show along a corridor lined with emoji wallpaper, I feel this generally well-rounded and entertaining exhibition verges on too much , with not quite enough .

If you liked this, check out George Kafka’s review of the Barbican’s exhibit on Japanese houses.





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