Review: California: Designing Freedom

May 25, 2017
  • Rating: ★★★★☆
Design Museum

A driverless car. LSD tabs. Blade Runner concept art. The Design Museum lays out an eclectic and fascinating assortment of objects in its California: Designing Freedom exhibition, and then ties itself in knots attempting to draw a line between them.

Charting the modern history of the US’s most populous state is no mean feat. It presents 1960s California as a point of conflux between the civil rights movement, liberal arts, hippies and nerds, disparate groups moving in the same general direction – towards personal freedom.

From this cauldron of enterprise and mind-expanding drugs arose what we now know as Silicon Valley, from whence arose the Fitbits and Google Glasses and PowerBook 100s that litter this show, each and every one Designed in California. The story is told through these objects rather than their creators, but the shadow of Steve Jobs looms large over the single, expansive room. He is the link between the hippies with their acid and the tech capitalists and their world-changing electronics (not to mention their billions upon billions of dollars).

Perhaps the clearest through-line is in the visual language championed by the west coast, from the simple, eye-catching civil-rights posters to the sparse design of the Apple user-interface, or the clean lines of the new breed of driverless cars.

It’s all beautifully presented, from the fetishised rows of Apple products to the gaudy psychedelic art of the 1960s to the items of assorted ephemera (Larry Page’s embroidered stool from the first Google office; an original Barbie Doll; the first hand-sewn gay pride flag). Overhead, beside a screen displaying an ongoing game of Pong, hang shimmering slogans reading “Say what you want”, “Make what you want”, “Go where you want”. The tone is overwhelmingly celebratory, the show a feast of powdery pinks and baby blues. You have to read between the lines to see how California’s journey has led to problems as well as solutions – a poster reading “Nothing at Facebook is somebody else’s problem” seems almost ironic given the criticism that company receives for failing to protect its users.

Fitting less comfortably into the melange is the role of institutions like Hollywood and Disneyland, both fleetingly referenced, and the exhibition would perhaps have benefited from narrowing its scope.

California: Designing Freedom is a hugely ambitious celebration of the world’s design capital, and while that ambition is occasionally over-reached, it is nonetheless a must-see for anyone with even a passing interest in the philosophy behind the devices we have come to take for granted.

First published in City A.M.