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Californian design: From utopian visions to digital space

‘Designed in California’ is printed on every Apple product. It is a reminder that non-physical design, as in the user interface and social network, happens in Silicon Valley, in the hub surrounding San Francisco and the Bay Area. ‘California designing freedom’ explores the connection between the Golden State’s approach to creativity and its hippy past. The exhibition, currently on at London’s Design Museum until 15 October 2017, argues that there is an approach to design and life here that is specific to California. Through a wide range of displays, from skateboards to iPhones and start-ups, the curators are hoping to reveal a running narrative, one pioneered by the hippies in the 1960s.

 

Emory Douglas, Afro-American Solidarity with the oppressed people of the world
Emory Douglas, Afro-American Solidarity with the oppressed people of the world

 

Historically California attracted those wishing to reinvent themselves. There was a sense a freedom here. Hollywood was created on this very idea, and up until the fifties, largely thanks to the European avant-garde émigrés arriving between and during the wars, California became an open and experimental place. To an extent, California remains part fantasy, part reality with a dialogue on design that promotes utopian worlds of desire that are also part fantasy, part reality.

Emory Douglas, We Shall Survive Without A Doubt
Emory Douglas, We Shall Survive Without A Doubt

 

While California’s mid-century modernism is well documented, this is the first exhibition to examine the state’s current global reach. Picking up the story in the 1960s, the Design Museum charts the journey from counterculture to Silicon Valley’s tech culture. Its central theme is that California has always pioneered tools of personal liberation, from LSD to surfboards and the iPhone. The exhibition explores how user interface designers in the Bay Area today are also shaping some of our most common daily experiences.

 

Olympus digital camera © The Estate of Buckminster Fuller, Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati, Ohio
Olympus digital camera © The Estate of Buckminster Fuller, Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati, Ohio

 

It is an intriguing argument and worth visiting for this and some of the exhibits – hand-drawn sketches of the Apple Macintosh’s icons, concept artwork for Blade Runner, a replica of Captain America chopper from the 1969 Easy Rider and the cartoon-like Waymo, the self-driving Google project. The last two are positioned centrally to signify the two contradictory aspects of California: the wide, open road, and finding this idea of freedom through more restricted technological knowhow.

Susan Kare notebook © kareprints.com
Susan Kare notebook © kareprints.com

 

It mirrors the seemingly opposing sides of one of California’s most notable creatives, Steve Jobs. He was a maverick who was both zen-hippy and responsible for one of the most profitable giant global corporations. ‘California designing freedom’ is a fascinating look at our world today – a utopian and dystopian dance, of our quest for personal freedom and our willingness to allow overarching surveillance.

Nargess Banks

 

Spectacles with in-built camera by Snap Inc, Snapchat's parent company
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