The Yarn House

Originally published on DesignObserver, April 14, 2018

Forms and Surfaces, Bronze Doors, 1973

“You know, you’re really nobody in Los Angeles unless you live in a house with a really big door,”—Steve Martin

Oddly, my life recently intersected with the big door issue. A friend directed me to the sale of a set of doors designed for Forms and Surfaces in 1973. They are magnificent examples of the post-war west coast craft and style movement. Unfortunately, my front door is a standard size and a 6-foot wide set of doors will not fit. I also can’t spend the equivalent of a small house on two doors. 

Jackson and Ellamarie Wooley, 1962

The West Coast Craft and Style movement led to the publication of a series of exhibitions and thirteen books, California Design. The content is not a collection of Santa Claus figures made with felt and a toilet paper roll. It represented a movement that started after World War II when artists and designers, working in California, explored new materials and techniques. Taking the concepts of modernism and optimism, artists crafted functional objects, furniture, pottery, and textiles using natural materials. Tupperware, pastel-colored plastic radios, faux wood chairs, and Naugahyde spoke to technologies and materials developed during the war. The craft movement turned toward nature as a response to the industrial mechanization of production and proliferation of new synthetic materials. 

The environment and history of California also informed the work. Natural materials alluded to the redwood forests, Sierra Nevada mountains, and endless beaches. There was a historical connection to the Arts and Crafts movement and Greene and Greene’s architecture using handmade and unique doors, cabinets, and dinnerware. The environment and history inspired the colors. Orange came from the California Poppy and oranges grown since the early mission period. The 1859 Gold Rush inspired ochre and gold. And the natural world created palettes of brown, rust, avocado, and burnt red

Barbara Shawcroft, Arizona Inner Space, 1971

The movement evolved, and by the 1970s, artists and designers created increasingly fanciful and provocative work led by the counter-culture attitude. Barbara Shawcroft’s Arizona Inner Space (1971) is, perhaps, the most miraculous house made with textiles ever. Evelyn Ackerman’s Animal Block Series (1971) is a musical narrative. Elsie Crawford and Douglas Deeds addressed the public sphere and urban experience with experimental fiberglass benches and seating.

The sleek aesthetic of the late 1970s and appropriation of the synthetic in the 1980s drove the movement to the backburner. Many California art and design schools have the myth of a kiln that once serviced a ceramics major. In the past decade, the artifacts represented in the California Design books have found homes in high-end stores that previously focused on mid-century furniture and art. The technological and easily disposable manufactured world today has rekindled the drive to use natural materials and actual human hands to create. I may not be able to build Saarinen Womb Chair, but I can learn to macramé a hanging house. 

LEFT: John Marko, 1962. RIGHT: Architectural Pottery, 1965.

LEFT: Jean Ray Laury, Scarlet Garden, 1962. RIGHT: Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman, 1971

Douglas Deeds, Architectural Fiberglass, 1968

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/ He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

The World is a Circle

When I was 8 or 9, we went to the movies in downtown Melbourne on Saturday afternoons. One movie that I thought was really cracker jack was Lost Horizon. Like many things, later on you wonder "What was I thinking?" But I saw it again this week and have reversed my opinion.

The plot is simple: a bunch of white people flee a revolution somewhere in a DC3. They crash in the Himalayas and are rescued by some Tibetan looking people in fur coats. They are taken to a beautiful tropical garden valley, Shangra La. People wear vaguely Asian caftans. The white people sing some songs, fall in love, and get healthy. One of them is grumpy and wants to leave. I won't ruin the end for you.

First, there is super cool macrame everywhere. There is even a macrame wall with candles. Second, the casting, at first seems ludicrous. How about serious actors like Peter Finch,Liv Ullmann and Sally Kellerman in a musical? Let's make John Gielgud Chinese. But oddly, it works, oddly. There is something about it, years later, that makes good sense. And finally, the strangely Asian/Indian/Tibetan/Japanese/Hawaiian theme of the costumes and sets. It kept me guessing the entire movie.

The music, by Burt Bacharach, is at first saccharine, but now I can't get it out of my head. It's a movie that makes you keep asking over and over, "Is this good, should it have been a musical, where is this geographically, and where can I get a macrame wall?"

Plastic Fantastic Wonderland

I've noticed that every concept car I see looks the same; sort of a swoopy Prius like car with very little headroom. I don't think I want one of these in the future. I want the rounded car with lots of headroom in Sleeper. Granted there are problems with the tiny sliver of a window and it would no doubt bottom out on the easiest of bumps, but it's pretty swell. I also like the pod-like cars on Logan's Run. Again, the lack of a steering wheel, seat belts, or any radio could be an issue, but cool design trumps these.

Dale Hennesy was the production designer on Logan's Run and Sleeper. Both of these have that distinct glossy and slick 1970s futuristic vision. Plastic is big. Chrome is hip. All white interiors like an Apple store or the new Enterprise work well. The furniture is made for awkward lounging and would clearly pose problems when it was time to stand up. Also, it must be quite temperate in the future. The people in Logan's Run seem to wear draping silk scarves as clothing and are really into those low socks. In this story, people are killed at 30 to maintain population control. Given the lack of arch-support if you only wear socks, this is a positive. Otherwise these people would be limping around at 40.

Most importantly, I appreciate the Garanimals approach to clothes. Monochrome is big. Nobody has clashing patterns or colors. Everyone is very matchy matchy. Perhaps people go home and change into plaid pants and flower patterned shirts in private.

Spray and Pray

On my first day at art school, a student two years ahead told me emphatically, “You need to know how to airbrush.” As freshmen, we used colored pencils and gouache. In the junior level studio, they all used the airbrush. The sound of the spraying and chug of the motor was often interrupted with, “sonofabitch!” I was frequently concerned that my career would never happen because I couldn’t use an airbrush.

For those of you who only know the spray paint can symbol in Photoshop®, an airbrush is a machine that is like a fancy can of spray paint. A compressor runs a stream of air through a nozzle that has paint. To make an image, you mask off the areas you don’t want painted, and smoothly spray. Then you take off that mask and make another one. The airbrush sounds easy. I’m sure you may be thinking, “so what, I can use spray paint.” But it clogs, splatters, your masks pull off other paint, and you shout “sonofabitch!” a lot.

My inability to use the tool only makes my admiration for the masters of airbrush greater. Digital perfection and high-definition may be in vogue today, but I think it’s time to celebrate this great work. It was a southern California art form that screams Venice Beach, roller-skating, Xanadu, Sunset Strip, and palm trees. And even better, the guys who were the airbrush kings, such as Charlie White, were the most laid-back, down-to-earth, and just plain nice people I’ve ever known.