Decades hence, when people try to go for that "2007 look," what will they zero in on? What style will make people say, "Oh, my God, that is sooo 2007"? Will they associate this era with the chintzy bling of hip-hop? Will they remember our time as one big Ikea catalog, stretching from sea to shining sea?
Modern America has nothing approaching a sole, unifying aesthetic. You're free to decorate your house or your body in almost any popular style from the past or present, and as long as you do a halfway decent job of it, everything's cool. This is a huge change from the America of, say, 1957, when men wore sharp suits and ladies wore big, fancy dresses, and everybody sat around smoking cigarettes in homes full of pointy furniture. Given the choice, we're all better off with . . . well, having a choice. But there's something to be said for everybody working within narrowly defined parameters. When people are stuck with one look, they focus on perfecting it, and they leave some fascinating artifacts behind.
"Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury," the new exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art, is a sprawling look at those post-World War II years when everybody was giddily looking ahead to what Disney's Tomorrowland promised would be a "great, big, beautiful tomorrow." As soon as you step inside, you're greeted by a black 1960 Porsche convertible that looks like something on loan from James Bond. It's startling to realize that people used to drive around in anything this beautiful. This car deserves to be in a museum—comparing it to a 2007 Lexus is like comparing the timeless sexiness of a Marilyn Monroe with the pricey blandness of a Gwyneth Paltrow.
The Porsche lets you know right upfront that the show takes a very broad look at the postwar era, from fine art to more everyday design. Frankly, the capital-A "art" has not aged all that well. Looking at a roomful of abstract, geometric paintings by artists such as Frederick Hammersley and Karl Benjamin, you could easily believe it was all the work of the same guy. (You could also believe these were tablecloths from Sinatra's penthouse suite.) Even the titles are functional and joyless: Opposite #15, By the Sea II. This stuff isn't just cool, it's cold.
Fortunately, the same cannot be said of the moody, black-and-white photos of William Claxton. Hot Dog Stand, Los Angeles, 3 AM captures a young couple, presumably on their way home from a nightclub. Dressed in formal clothes (you can even see the woman's hoop through her skirt), they lean together so he can light her cigarette. It's a moment of perfectly random, real-world glamour from a lifetime ago.
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The disposable-pop product in this show is the stuff that's really endured: The cover for the Miles Davis album that gives the exhibit its title could've been designed six minutes ago, while the jazzy cartoons of Chuck Jones and the UPA studio (seen here on four flat-screens) will be delighting our grandchildren's grandchildren. We're also treated to a selection of architectural photos and magazines. Some, like Pierre Koenig's cantilevered house, prefigure the design trends of 2007, while others—such as John Lautner's Chemosphere, a spindly, octagonal domicile perched in Hollywood Hills—look like a sci-fi-movie version of 2007.
This show is worth checking out in its own right, but if you have a dad or a grandma around who was alive back then, be sure to take them along for on-the-spot commentary from somebody who actually lived with this stuff. Inspecting the hulking Quadraflex stereo speaker, my dad remembered seeing them in action, noting they were "big enough for a cat to live in." It brings the past alive, but now I can't stop measuring everything in cats. (My car could sleep eight cats.)
The America of 2007 looks as cluttered and chaotic as a MySpace page, and one suspects the citizens of tomorrow won't get terribly nostalgic about us. When they step inside their holo-pods for virtual, retro dance parties with their buddies from Lunar Colony Delta, they'll twiddle the chrono-simulator knobs right past 2007, taking them to a punk club in 1977, to a 1967 happening, and finally to 1957 . . . to witness the birth of the cool all over again.
"Birth of the Cool" at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Wed. & Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through Jan. 6, 2008. $8-$10.