September 13, 2009


Spy Vibers with an eye for mid-century modern and the culture of modernism will want to check out The Birth Of Cool -a lushly illustrated and researched coffee table book. Flipping through the pages is like club-hopping to visit the movers and shakers of the era. Major designers and milestone designs are covered from architecture, furniture, record sleeve design, movie set and title production, mass media, etc. There's even some space for Hugh Hefner as they discuss the revolutionary notion of being a cool guy. Other Spy Vibe faves are mentioned, including Hitchcock North By Northwest. Additional information below from Amazon:

Product Description
Miles Davis's seminal recording, known as "Birth of the Cool", is the starting point for this colorful, multi-disciplinary journey through 1950s West Coast America. 1950s West Coast style exuded "cool": from the smooth, hypnotic strains of a Miles Davis riff through Richard Neutra's elegant, modernist residences to the hard-edged paintings of Helen Lundeberg and Karl Benjamin. This richly illustrated volume casts a fresh eye on Fifties West Coast style with illuminating commentary from a variety of perspectives. Designed to echo the period it celebrates, this catalog explores modernist innovations in art, architecture, design, film and music. Prominent cultural critics write on an array of topics: Thomas Hine about the culture of cool; Elizabeth Smith on domestic aspects of the period's architecture; Francis Colpitt on hard-edged abstract painting; Dave Hickey on jazz, and Bruce Jenkins on the crossover between animation and experimental film. The result is a multi-faceted exploration of the 1950s West Coast.

In Elizabeth Armstrong's BIRTH OF THE COOL: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury every facet of popular art, from architecture to furniture, with a generous dose of graphic design, is examined for how it expressed California's cultural aura. The title of this book the catalog for a traveling show that is now [ended] at the Oakland Museum of California is borrowed from the 1957 album by Miles Davis, who in this telling is the standard bearer of West Coast cool, in stark contrast to the East Coast hipster style. "His lyrical playing and pure, vibrato free tone seemed to define a postwar concept of cool," Thomas Hine writes in "Cold War Cool," one of the book's nine essays.

Complementing Miles's sounds, the startling minimalist furniture design of Charles and Ray Eames and the space age architecture of Richard Neutra and Rudolph M. Schindler added to the unmistakable West Coast aesthetic. While modern graphic design did not begin in California, for various transplants from New York (like the film title designer Saul Bass) and Europe (like the poster artist Herbert Matter), as well as for the Angeleno and book jacket maestro Alvin Lustig, it was a hotbed of graphic experimentation. The magazine Arts & Architecture was the wellspring of graphic progressivism. "Covers by Ray Eames, Alvin Lustig and John Follis all utilize the technique of building an idea through a freewheeling juxtaposition of photographic and handmade elements," the book designer Lorraine Wild writes in her essay "Formal, Cool, Dense: Graphic Design in Los Angeles at Midcentury," "though each did this in her or his own very specific way." Not every aspect of California cool is uniquely Californian. But as Bruce Jenkins writes in "Making the Scene: West Coast Modernism and the Movies," the simplified graphics that characterized United Productions of America, the studio behind the Oscar winning animated short "Gerald McBoing Boing" (in addition to Mr. Magoo), defined the post Disney West Coast aesthetic. UPA cartoons "referenced not only a visual style emerging within the larger arena of the fine arts but also a design aesthetic that was fast becoming a distinctive style within California residential and commercial architecture the cool."

In the current international culture, where regional and national styles are fast falling victim to global branding, this integrated and consistent history shows that design is a function of not just commerce, technology and politics, but also location, location, location. Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company --The New York Times, 5/31/2008


  1. I was watching the Lee Marvin film POINT BLANK (1967) last night and was thrilled at all of the MidMod architecture. Another good book to look for is "MIMO: Miami Modern Revealed." It's another fine source of this style of design.

  2. I haven't seen Point Blank yet- now I have to :) I have seen the Miami book- awesome! I hope readers will look for it. There are some pre-fab modern books and a norcal modern book out there -all pretty inspiring.


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