From acid to Apple: a survey of California design

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California: Designing Freedom is a show at the Design Museum in London, a museum devoted to displaying product, industrial, graphic, fashion and architectural design.

Co-curator Justin McGuirk created a show -- with co-curator Brendan McGetrick -- that illustrates Cali design through a selection of objects from the counter-culture to the current "techno-utopia."

McGuirk says they chose this topic because in the view of the museum, the entire world has become Californian due to the outsize influence of Silicon Valley and the tech products that have their roots in California's freewheeling counter-culture:

"I'm talking about the rise of personal computers. Laptops. Smartphones. Social media," McGuirk said. "All of these tools were in some way or other born and disseminated from Silicon Valley. And you know, we're using them all. I mean, in a way, one could make a case that we are all Californians now."

McGuirk adds that a young lady in Singapore taking a selfie of herself on an iPhone and posting it on Facebook or Instagram is indulging in a kind of particularly Californian form of behavior, not just because of the tools and platform she's using but also because of the idea that she should share her experiences and share a piece of herself with her community.

"The idea that she should perform a little bit for an audience is a kind of Californian form of individualism and self-expression and self-empowerment and the pursuit of individualism," he said.

On display are a range of production models of the early Apple iPhone and computers, furniture from garages where Silicon Valley leaders invented their products; a Waymo driverless car along with a Harley hog from Easy Rider.

They show LSD blotting papers and psychedelic posters, and various other manifestations of what McGuirk sees as the convergence of counter-culture and tech idealism.

"It's about tools of personal liberation. Effectively it runs from the 1960s to the present day. And it charts the shift from one kind of notion of freedom, a very counter-cultural form of freedom which is slightly rebellious... and this idea of self-sufficiency really runs through the show. In the 1960s that might have meant living on a commune, growing your own food and making your own clothes. But what that becomes is a more techno-utopian idea of freedom. When Silicon Valley starts to change our lives, really it becomes about the power of technology to liberate the individual," McGuirk said.

McGuirk showed off some bright colored, patterned blotting papers used for taking acid.

"One of the fun things about LSD is it's the only drug you can take where you're consuming a piece of graphic design. Because they made these blotter papers with print stamped on them that showed you roughly how much you were supposed to tear off and consume. And acid really influenced the aesthetics of the counterculture; the kaleidoscopic patterns, the bright colors, were all evoking the effects of taking acid. And it's really one of the key stories of the counterculture of the late '60s, the summer of love, the music was all infused with this aesthetic," McGuirk said.

"It also in a way influenced the computer culture that was still emergent in the late 1960s. Douglas Engelbart, who was the computer engineer who came up with so many of the pivotal \designs that we now associate with computers -- such as the mouse, the idea of hyperlinks, the idea that a computer is a tool for connecting people and not just a giant calculator -- Engelbart was a big advocate of using LSD. As was Steve Jobs."

One of the most important objects in the exhibition is the original Apple 1 – built in 1976 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and now owned by Wozniak. It was borrowed from the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, and sits in a case with an alarm. Wozniak and Jobs met at the Homebrew Computer Club and subsequently set up Apple in Jobs's parents' garage. In the Apple 1, Wozniak created the first low-cost microcomputer, which Jobs put on the market for $666.66. All buyers had to do was plug in a keyboard and a television set for a screen. Many owners created their own wooden boxes, which connected the hacker culture of the Apple 1 to the DIY culture of the hippies.

Also in the exhibit: LA designers of note who the curators believe expressed the California free spirit not to mention the convergence of invention and tech -- as in early works by LA designer April Greiman who pioneered computer generated graphic design, structures by Frank Gehry that experimented with digital design of facades, and the Aeron chair by LA's Don Chadwick, a monument to the ergonomic, technologically advanced office chair. And they show posters by Sister Corita Kent and imagery of the LA freeway system, to demonstrate the freedom of mobility that characterizes the California spirit.

There are some areas the exhibition does not explore because it is, says McGuirk, a show of design objects. These include the darker sides of these freedoms, from the abuses of social media to the clogging of the freeways; the perils of the networked everything, from invasion of privacy to hacking; and the environmental implications of the huge consumption of energy by a computer-addicted world.

In response to the issues of cyber bullying and trolling, McGuirk said, "well, in a way these things are just tools, right? And the tools just mirror ourselves. So when we talk about freedom of expression it sounds like a very benign thing, doesn't it. But freedom of expression can also mean freedom to express dark or angry impulses."

Photo: California: Designing Freedom co-curator Justin McGuirk (the other curator was Brendan McGetrick) in front of a wall of emoji at at the Design Museum in London. (Frances Anderton)