Friday, 3 November 2017

California Dreamin':A Design for Life.

From the Joshua Tree to the Humboldt Redwood State Park, from Big Sur to Death Valley, along Highway 1 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, from the island prison of Alcatraz to the verdant vineyards of the Napa Valley - no other state, except possibly Texas, presents such a clear image of itself as the Golden one - California.

The streets and bridges of San Francisco, the surfers of Huntington Beach, NWA's Compton, the Hollywood Hills, the beautiful people of Venice Beach, the manicured lawns of Bel Air, and the endless sprawl of San Fernando Valley, all join together, with a little push from the movies and television, to define an utterly iconic space.

Music, too, has done its bit to keep the freak flag of California flying. California Girls, California Dreamin', Hotel California, California Soul, California Uber Alles, California Love, San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair), Under The Bridge, Welcome To The Jungle, even Sonic Youth and Lydia Lunch's Death Valley '69. It seems safe to say that the neighbouring states of Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon have inspired only a fraction as many songwriters to pick up a guitar or put pen to paper.

So, why, with so much natural (as well as man made) beauty do Californians (both native and naturalised) spend so much time retreating into fantasy worlds? Hollywood, Disney, LSD, and cyberspace. If they weren't invented here they've been perfected or standardised here. The Design Museum in London's Holland Park had curated a show, California:Designing Freedom, that proposed to tell the story of the last fifty or so years of the state's history and how it had become some kind of Mecca for designers and creative types the world over, how it has changed the world we live in, how we express ourselves, how we navigate life, and how we live it. Even how we fall in love.

The show was broken into five loose groups (Tools of Collaboration and Community, Tools of Production and Self-Reliance, Tools of Movement and Escape, Tools of Self-Expression and Rebellion, and Tools of Perception and Self-Fantasy) and it was sometimes difficult to see where one group ended and another began. Understandably there was a huge overlap and if this was initially frustrating, eventually it was liberating, forcing the viewer to impose their own narrative.

For me the story was less about sitting on a beanbag listening to The Grateful Dead or seeing Larry Page's first stool from his Google office and more about how this state of hippies, the open road, skateboards, surfboards, and free festivals morphed into one of tech start-ups, Silicon Valley, AirBnB, Uber, and fitness apps. How, and why, did we get from Easy Rider to the self driving vehicle?

Replica of Captain America Chopper - Ben Hardy, Clifford Vaughs and Peter Fonda (1969)

Waymo 'Firefly' self-driving vehicle - Yoojung Ahn, Jared Gross, Philipp Haban (2014)

Of course, there's no right or wrong answer to that but, as befits the third most extensive state in the Union, there is a journey. In my blog about the V&A's You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 exhibition back in February I wrote about how Richard Brautigan, Stewart Brand, and Steve Jobs inspired beatniks to become entrepreneurial and how outsider tech-pioneers like IBM and Hewlett-Packard aimed to create a fairer, more idealistic society by taking the ethos of the hippy and the festival world into the domain of business.

Eventually that dream curdled as many of those involved proved to be equally as venal as those they'd replaced at the summit of the business world. But for a few years California, was indeed, dreaming. The state was experimenting with autonomous communities, conferences and communes provided a testing ground for ideas of what egalitarian, networked societies could look like, and the Homebrew Computer Club (where Steves Job and Wozniak first met) took the idea of digital technology from corporations and put it into the hands of the people.

Though the Homebrew Computer Club may sound a long way from the Day-Glo aesthetics and enthusiastic acid gobbling of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters or outlaw motorcycle clubs with names, like Satan's Slaves, designed to shock, they all drew on one thing. A very clear sense of identity. You can see it now in tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple. Even the way these titans arrange their business around 'campuses' clearly has its roots in the communes, the hippy dreams, of the sixties. Often their mission statements, Google's Don't be Evil and Twitter's Yours to Discover, are wrapped up in a woolly ill-defined, if well intended, liberalism that, as their tentacles reach further into every aspect of our life, cause the spokespeople for these companies to tie themselves up in ideological knots when trying to defend them. 

Motorcycle Club jacket (1960s-1970s)

Merry Pranksters leader Ken Kesey atop the 'Furthur' (sic) bus - Tad Streshinsky (1966)

Replica Endless Summer surfboard - Hobie (1963)

Many of the sixties start-ups of California seem a world away from the vast sprawling headquarters of the tech behemoths. Hobie Surfboards got going in 1960 when Hobart 'Hobie' Alter used his father's Laguna Beach garage (Disney and Hewlett Packed, as well as many others, also began in small garages) to build a few nine foot balsa wood boards for his friends, the first skateboards started out as wooden boxes, or boards, with roller skate wheels attached to the bottom and slowly developed from there, and Vans (who had opened up in 1966 in Anaheim selling directly to the customer) started out selling shoes for skateboarders before branching out into snowboarding, BMX, and sponsoring the Warped Tour travelling rock festival.

If you weren't into extreme sports you could always enjoy the outdoors, or, indeed, the interior of your own psyche, in a very different way. In front of 30,000 hippies at the Human Be-In in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 1967, Timothy Leary popularised the mantra of "Turn on, tune in, drop out" and there were tabs of LSD, depicting the Eye of Horus or scenes from Disney's Fantasia, to help you do this and Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Blue Cheer were there to provide the soundtrack to your trip. And it was a trip.

Hosoi Hammerhead skateboard - Christian Hosoi (c.1985)

Vans Era - Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta (1975)

Big Brother and the Holding Company; Avalon Ballroom - Victor Moscoso (1967)

Eye of Horus LSD blotter paper - Designer unknown (1979)

The counterculture of California subversively appropriated industrial and military technologies and put them to use for transforming the self and even society itself. LSD had been used experimentally, and, it has to be said, massively unsuccessfully (tripping soldiers don't really want to fight so much as stare into space), by the CIA before being made illegal in 1966. As acid infused the music of California and elsewhere, it also opened the mind up to new possibilities, and for each mind it damaged many more became switched on by it. Underground newspapers like the San Francisco Oracle enthusiastically wrote about its 'transcendental aspirations'.

You could now have Disneyland or Hollywood in your own mind. But what use a perfect world of freedom and love in your mind if outside in the real world things were not so perfect? Vietnam, Civil Rights, racism, and homophobia were still huge issues across the US and California was, although at times it hardly seemed it, part of the US.

The now world famous Rainbow Flag was created by artist and activist Gilbert Baker for 1978's San Francisco Pride Parade. Each colour stood for something. Pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for the human spirit. Pink and indigo have since been removed and blue has replaced turquoise but the flag still flies proudly, now, much further afield than San Francisco and is often seen as a welcome sign, an indicator of a safe space.

Rainbow Flag - Gilbert Baker (1978)

Protest poster for the police raid of the Black Cat Tavern - PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) (1967)

Gay-in poster - Bruce Reifel/Gay Liberation Front (1970)

Eleven years before Baker designed the Rainbow Flag, in February 1967, the gay rights group PRIDE organised a demonstration protesting an LAPD raid of a New Year's Eve celebration in Silverlake, two years before New York's famous Stonewall rebellion this was one of the first gay rights protests in the whole country. Two years later the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay Liberation Front organised a 'Gay-In' at Griffith Park, in that city's Los Feliz district, as a means of increasing the visibility of LA's lesbian and gay population and mobilising the next generation of activists.

As the Gay Liberation Front protested for gay rights, The Black Panthers did for black rights. Emory Douglas, the Black Panther's Minister of Culture as well as one of their chief graphic designers, firmly believed that the Panther's newspaper needed potent images to cut through the high illiteracy rates in deprived communities. With his language of empowerment, resistance, and positive black role models he provided that, and just to make sure people got it each morning he personally distributed newspapers and pasted them directly to neighbourhood walls.

Afro-American Solidarity with the Oppressed People of the World - Emory Douglas (1969)

Everywoman newspaper centrefold - Sheila Levrant de Bretteville (1970)

Sexism, also, was being tackled. While teaching at the California Institute of the Arts in 1970, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville designed a special issue of the feminist newspaper, Everywoman, with a centrefold that celebrated a "give me a C, give me a U, give me an N, give me a T" cheer created by students in her department.

It must've felt like, despite stiff resistance from the establishment and the patriarchy, things were moving forward on all fronts but as the Harvey Weinstein abuse stories continue to trickle out we're beginning to see just how widespread the problem still is. Even something as seemingly solitary as playing computer games has become something of a battleground between sexist 'dinosaurs' and more progressively minded people of both sexes.

Gamergate seems a long way from the idyllic days of the Atari television games. I look back through rose tinted spectacles with joy at the pleasure my Atari brought me. From Indy 500 to Space Invaders and on to Activision's brilliant Skiing and Boxing games all you had to do was shove a cartridge in and play (oh, and get your parents to buy them for you, they weren't cheap). The Atari 2600 (initially called the Atari VCS) was a huge breakthrough in home video systems and sold more than 30,000,000 consoles in the eighties.

Atari 2600 CX2600-A - Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell (1980)

Ray Gun, February 1993 - David Carson (1993)

I had hours of fun playing on my Atari (and later my Commodore 64) before going to gigs, buying the NME and Melody Maker, and, let's face it, getting drunk started to take over as my primary leisure pursuits. If I'd lived in America there's a good chance I'd have been buying Ray Gun magazine. With features on Dinosaur Jr, The Flaming Lips, The Shamen, and Shabba Ranks it'd have been right up my boulevard.

Graphic designer David Carson brought the spirit of the subculture to Ray Gun, amongst other magazines, with his hard to read typography and, quite frankly, frustrating use of upside down photographs. A former professional surfer who'd started off working on skateboarding magazines his style came to be known as 'grunge typography' and, alas, it's dated as badly as some of the lesser lights of that scene. Although, rather amusingly, he once set an entire interview with Bryan Ferry in 'dingbats' because he'd found the interview so utterly tedious.

Magazines were fun (and are still, surprisingly, popular) but the interactivity of the Kindle has, understandably, revolutionised publishing. The idea that you could, essentially, carry two hundred books round with you at all times with ease (whilst saving trees at the same time) was so popular that the first production batch sold out in five and a half hours.

Amazon Kindle - Amazon Lab126 (2007)

Cardboard Surfboard - Mike Sheldrake (2017)

Aeron Chair - Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf (1994)

But even with the increased portability of books and computers (and, of course, combinations of the two) people were still spending more time sat behind desks than ever before. Even if you were downloading open-source surfboards from Mike Sheldrake's website you'd want a comfortable chair to sit on as you did it, lest your arse goes numb.

Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf's Aeron chair is the most successful ergonomic office chair of all time, one is (by 2016 estimates) produced every seventeen seconds, and the popularity was due to its adjustability, the sustainability of its design (being largely made of recyclable materials and largely able to be further recycled at the end of its life) and the lightness of its breathable mesh 'pellicle' fabric. It's said to fit any body shape (a diagram shows examples including tall thin types with flat spinal curvature, obese types with clef shaped buttocks, and tall preganant female types) but as it freed its user from discomfort it, at the same time, created a new problem by enabling said user to spend even more hours in a sedentary position. 

The design of chairs, both ergonomically and aesthetically, was merely following developments in architectural practices that had been playing out for the last fifty years. From Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes to Frank Gehry's iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall, architects were questioning orthodoxy and offering new solutions to age old problems, all the time aided by the technological advances that were happening around them.

Walt Disney Concert Hall - Frank Gehry (1989)

Replica of the first Barbie Doll - Mattel (1959)

Building Construction/Geodesic Dome, United States Patent Office no. 2,682,235 - Buckminster Fuller and Chuck Byrne (1951)

If buildings and chairs could be modified, altered, and brought close to perfection then what of the human body? Would the failing, imperfect, and increasingly overweight frames we carry ourselves around in be left behind in the white heat of technology?

The now multinational toy manufacturer Mattel started up a in a garage (obviously) in El Segundo in 1945 producing picture frames and doll's house furniture. Fourteen years into the company's life co-founder Ruth Handler invented the Barbie doll (named for her daughter Barbara) and one quick look at the pins on her suggests she was not designed with accuracy to human anatomy as an important factor.

 With legs like that if she'd been real she'd have given Evelyn Ashford quite a race in the women's 100 metres final at the 1984 Olympics, held that year, famously in Los Angeles. It was the first time I'd ever seen, on tv, people flying around with jetpacks and that, alone, spoke to the modernity of California, not least when viewed from a couch in rural Hampshire.

The urge to run faster, jump higher, explore further, and generally keep the weight off had bitten Los Angeles, had bitten California, and was starting to bite the world. With more people employed in primarily sedentary work and less time spent performing formerly laborious, time consuming, processes due to advanced technology we were in danger of getting seriously unfit. Yet, it was those same computers we looked to for the answers, and they found them too.

1984 LA Olympics Poster - Deborah Sussman (1983)

Google Street View Trekker - Google (2013)

Google Trekker in Liwa Desert in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Google (2013)

Bicycles, like the Marin below, used titanium frames and front and rear suspension to make mountain biking (a popular pastime in California since the 1970s) increasingly practical, the Strava GPS could be used to map (and store) your runs. Some even turned their runs into digital 'land art' tracing out the shapes of dinosaurs, bears, Christmas puddings, and, of course, men's cocks as they ran.

If you wanted to view a more accurate, less willy based (talk about the patriarchy), image of where you are or where you're going you could use Google Street View which, thanks to a 19kg camera with 15 lenses, now allows us, for the first time in human history, to view a map the same size as the territory it marks out. Normally mounted on a car Google also made a Street View Trekker which could be used to chart areas inaccessible to motor vehicles. It could be carried on a rucksack or, if for example in the deserts of the Abu Dhabi, on the back of a camel.

Marin Titanium FRS mountain bike - Marin (1993)

Strava GPS doodles - Stephen Lund (2015-present)

Los Angeles 2015 - Syd Mead (1985)

When Ridley Scott adapted Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into the dystopian noir thriller of Blade Runner he had to employ visual artist Syd Mead to draw up visions of a future Los Angeles. Now you can simply don a pair of Snap Spectacles and use their built in video camera to post circular format videos directly to your Snapchat social media feed. Or maybe you'd prefer the optical head-mounted display that is Google Glass. Google Glass goes one step further and augments your daily reality by superimposing your field of vision with visual, audio, and location based information. On one hand, it sounds exciting and very much like the future, and on the other, it makes me long to head out on the highway like an easy rider, lock myself in Disneyland's Cinderella Castle, or simply drop an industrial strength supply of blotting paper. As David St Hubbins said you can have "too much fucking perspective".

Snap Spectacles - Spectacles Team (2016)

Google Glass - Janco van der Merwe (2013)

But while we can travel anywhere on our phones, access augmented realities, and sit in chairs ergonomically designed so we don't get sore bums, we can't seem to stop being horrible to each other, particularly to people who look different to us, think differently to us, or love in a different way to us.

With Trump in power, America and the world seem more divided than they have been in generations. Undoubtedly Russian hacking has been pivotal in this (it could even be suggested that Putin's strategy is to sow so much discontent across the West that countries slowly tear themselves apart in scenes not far short of civil wars) but we also need to ask questions of ourselves. What are we doing to stop it? Are we voting for 'strong' and 'powerful' leaders because we believe in them or because algorithms are directing us that way? Is a 'like' on Facebook or an RT on Twitter really enough when the world faces huge, growing, problems of inequality and poverty?

We the People - Shepard Fairey/ and Ridwan Adhami (2016)

Facebook 'Like' icon - Facebook (2016)

Emoji for Apple iPhone - Apple design team (2009-present)

Of course not - and much like when computer technology was able to find an answer to computer technology making us unfit, hopefully the computer technology that we've used to turn as against each other can be rerouted back to its original, idealistic, idea of being used to unify us. It's a big ask for sure but there are positive signs.

Shepard Fairey's We the People series features Native Americans, African Americans, Muslims, and Latinas to protest Trump's misuse of power. It leverages the power of digital distribution by making the posters' print files free to download and distribute. As much as the internet can divide it can also brings us together, it's really up to us how we choose to use it, it's a tool remember, but it has the potential.

It's been a long journey from the Summer of Love and Pong to augmented reality and algorithms, at times it's felt like an interminable trek through the deserts of California itself, and along the way it's thrown up, alongside the emoji, the selfie, and the Kindle, a combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly. But, despite their power, it's still us who are in controls of these tools and it's our decision whether or not to use them to wreak havoc, assert control, or to make the world a better, kinder place for each other.

The hippy dream may've soured a long time ago but some of the ideals of it still ring true. The Californian state motto, nicked from Archimedes, is Eureka, "I find". California has found, and forged, new ways of living, new ways of communicating, new ways of exercising, and new ways of protesting. At a time when America, and therefore the West, is at a very important crossroads it would be a fool who'd bet against California, somehow, again being the state to point the way forward. The leaves may be brown, the sky may be grey, at the moment. But it won't always be that way. Not if we keep California dreamin'.

Publicity still from the film Easy Rider (1969)

Pong - Atari (1972)

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