by Jon Sueda
The continent is tilted, and everything loose rolls into California.
—Frank Lloyd Wright
At the end of the west is insanity.
It’s a scientific fact that if you stay in California you lose one point of your IQ every year.
Whatever starts in California unfortunately has an inclination to spread.
California lacks a lot of the rules and restrictions the East has. Every house is a different style, different material, different color. There’s a lot of craziness out there.
California is like an artificial limb the rest of the country doesn’t really need. You can quote me on that.
Yesterday, Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he would run for governor of California. The announcement was good news for Florida residents who now live in the second flakiest state in the country.
There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.
You haven’t lived until you’ve died in California.
Are people living in California (graphic designers included) as crazy as many notable quotations seem to suggest? Some social scientists actually give credibility to the idea, and explain the behavior of Californians as a direct result of historical events. In Culture Shock! California, Mark Cramer says that in their conquest of the western United States, most pioneers found their ideal environments for living along the way, and put down roots. “Only the ones who could not fit in elsewhere arrived in California, remaining there because they had reached the end of the line. Ends of the line seem to attract nonconformists, as exemplified in other funky extremities of the continental U.S.A. like Key West, Florida, and New Orleans, Louisiana.” Adapting this idea of how the cultural histories and conditions of a place are inextricably intertwined with the activities and behaviors of its residents, Work from California examines how location affects visual production, and vice versa, in the Golden State.
Traditionally, region-based exhibitions aim to capture significant work from a particular location and perhaps create a discussion around the variety of diverse individual practices. This model, which is commonly used for region-specific biennial art exhibitions, allows the connections—the traces of the contextual conditions of the place in question, if any—to emerge organically. But in the profession of graphic design, where the majority of work is based on a client’s content and thus never totally an autonomous and personal expression of the designer, regional specificity can get blurred, obscured, or reduced to pure style. For this reason, in my selection process here, I focused less on featuring “great California designers”—an excellent but arbitrary accumulation of work—and instead selected exceptional works that directly interpreted or reflected upon California as subject matter. Work from California offers a portrait of America’s 31st state through the lens of graphic design. It examines the fascination that graphic designers have with California culture, as well as revealing something of the context, attitudes, and people involved, and the history of the place where the work was made.
The exhibition is in two parts. In the first, the featured graphic designers present either a newly commissioned piece that has been specifically created in response to the exhibition concept, or an existing work that is somehow thematically related to California. The works explore subjects such as migration, frontierism, the West, celebrity, spirituality, the vernacular, landscape, technology, architecture, film, and California subcultures such as surfing, skateboarding, and bodybuilding.
The second part of the exhibition is the publication, which serves as both a catalogue and a supplemental reader. Along with his or her biographical information, each designer in the exhibition contributed a short interview about their personal connection to California, the place they choose to live and practice. Surprisingly, only eight of the designers in the show were born in California; the remaining 21 relocated from other states or other countries. Each individual has their own specific story and circumstances, but they all seem to share an awareness—in some cases you could even say an obsession—with California’s history and cultural idiosyncrasies. Almost all of them agree that California manifests itself in their work in one way or another.
I too am a migrant to California, but of the group, I am the lone eastward mover. I was born and raised in Hawaii, America’s 50th state, and unlike most other transplants I didn’t grow up with a utopian vision of California. Rather, in my youth in the 1980s, it was pretty much a default destination for anyone who wanted to go to college and didn’t get into an Ivy League university. Upon arrival in San Francisco in 1990, I was totally disappointed with the weather, beaches, and ocean. The sand was a dirty gray, and the water, which was too cold to swim in, was nowhere near the intense turquoise blue I was used to. In fact, living in California made me stop going to the beach.
Fast forward two decades, to 2012. I’ve tried leaving here twice, once to go back to Hawaii, which despite its beautiful beaches lasted for a year, and the other to the Netherlands, for five months. But I came back both times, and now I can’t imagine living anywhere else. As some of my fellow Californians say in their conversations, there is an optimistic and laid-back energy here, and an ingrained openness to diverse ideas, cultures, visual languages, and forms. At the same time, there’s an intensely analytical and critical design culture, which creates an environment where theory and practice inform and enrich each other. I am continually discovering interesting graphic designers, start-ups that leverage incredible technological innovations, masters of traditional craft, compelling new practices that merge 2D, 3D, and interactive design, and, yes, eccentric design practitioners, some of whom are included in this exhibition. Many of them agree that they would never be able to do what they do if not for the wide-open spaces of California.