Simanaitis Says

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IN THE mid-part of the last century (how quaint this sounds in 2013!), Southern California was the birthplace of the cool. A wonderful exhibit curated by the Orange County Museum of Art in 2007 advanced this point of view. As a born-again Californian of 34 years, I celebrate California Cool with the following comments and photos from the exhibit’s catalog.


Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury, curated by Elizabeth Armstrong, essays and contributions by nine others, Orange County Museum of Art, 2007. Both and list it.

Cool is a characteristic of midcentury design: rational, pure and minimalist. It’s also an attitude: laid-back and elusive to those who try too hard to achieve it. As noted by Elizabeth Armstrong, there’s also the contradiction that “cool flourished during the 1950s, a decade better known for being square….”


Case Study House #22, the Stahl house, architect Pierre Koenig, Los Angeles, 1959-1960. Photo by Julius Shulman. This and other images from Birth of the Cool.

The Case Study Houses sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine were experiments in post-war home design in the period 1945 to 1966. The most iconic of them is the Stahl house, like most of them built in Los Angeles. This famed Julius Shulman photo shows how the home’s rectilinear design echos the Los Angeles layout as viewed from its Hollywood Hills location.

Interesting fact: In the movie Galaxy Quest, it’s the home of Tim Allen’s character.


Eames Aluminum Group lounge chair and ottoman, Herman Miller, Inc., 1957.

Los Angelinos Charles and Bernice “Ray” Eames were American designers of wide range, everything from architecture (Case Study Houses #8, #9) to industrial and graphic design, fine art and film. As noted in Birth of the Cool, their Aluminum Group office and lounge furniture is elegant, yet it doesn’t encourage its user to obsess over design. It’s cool, in its sense of understated emotional distance.

John and Elaine Bond chose these chairs for their editors when R&T got its showplace offices in Newport Beach, California, in the late 1960s.


Austin Mini, British Motor Corp., 1959.

The original Austin Mini’s ubiquity in southern California justified its inclusion in the exhibit. This British icon of minimalism exploits 80 percent of its floorpan to passengers and luggage. Owned by all four of the Beatles, driven by the likes of Peter Sellers, Steve McQueen—and Twiggy—the Mini was the epitome of motoring cool.

A personal observation: The latter-day Mini, an entertaining modern car, loses cool in trying too hard.


Sunday jam session at Terry Gibbs’s house, North Hollywood, 1960. Photo by William Claxton.

The hipster aspect of cool was enhanced by the laid-back attitude of West Coast Jazz, particularly in musical contrast to East Coast Bop. Jazz musicians of either genre were cool by definition, but the subtle musicality of, to name a few, Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Chico Hamilton, Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker was, in itself, cool on cool.


Dave and Iola Brubeck, and their home designed by Beverley David Thorne, Oakland, 1954. Photo by Bob Willoughby.

Dave Brubeck (see and his wife Iola lived in a home designed by Beverley David Thorne. To complete this brief circle of California Cool, Thorne, a native Californian, includes among his accomplishments the Harrison House, Case Study House #26. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

One comment on “CALIFORNIA COOL

  1. Greg Brown
    June 6, 2013

    I was fortunate to work alongside Bill Claxton, one of the foremost chroniclers of California Cool through his photos of the jazz scene, at Motor Trend back in the 1980s. I was delighted to discover that the art director of a car magazine was also one of the coolest people I ever came to know.

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This entry was posted on June 4, 2013 by in And Furthermore..., I Usta be an Editor Y'Know and tagged , .
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