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Mid-century Modern; Addiction or Psychological Affliction?

by Claire Partin on Wednesday, September 15, 2010 from facebook

They say that some of us get stuck somewhere in our childhood, that this is where we go emotionally when things get tough. I don’t know if I am emotionally a five year old, but this is definitely where my design aesthetic is stuck. Back when my parents were still together, back before I knew about pain or separation or what it meant to be an outsider, my parents bought a super cool 60’s house in the Eichler Tract of Orange, CA when my father, Robert, (everyone called him Bob) got a job teaching art at Cal State Fullerton. He was a hip young artist, his large canvases informed by his years in New York at Columbia when artists such as Rothko, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Warhol were emerging prominently on the scene. My mother, Martha, was a stylish Vassar educated woman who graduated at the top of her class at Parsons School of Design in New York City. And though my parents were probably both in New York at the same time they did not meet until my mother moved to Los Angeles to be a young designer for Lanz. Rumor has it my dad was first attracted to my aunt Molly at the party set up for young adults associated with the University of Kentucky; That’s where my Grandpa Ted (Martha’s dad) ran the Art Department and my dad had taught for one summer. But since my dad was shy, my mother was definitiely more his speed than charismatic aunt Molly. When my parents met they were two adorably shy, gorgeous, thin and stylish young adults in California. (When My Grandpa Ted and my Grandma Doris met they were two gorgeous stylish young adults at the Art Institute in Chicago – I see a pattern forming.)

On their first date my dad took my mom to Zuma Beach to see the Pacific Ocean. Imagine her joy at coming over the hill to see the long stretch of beach and the impressive blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean! She said she had never seen it, though she had, but certainly not like this. They collected pebbles on the beach. They were in love. They got married. From what I can tell from the photos it was a very sweet wedding except that my dad insisted she have blue roses and the dye got all over Martha’s hands. Still Martha was gorgeous in the fifties gown she designed, and daddy was devilishly handsome in his white tux. I think it was white.

My parents moved to North Carolina where my father got a position teaching art at North Carolina Greensboro, and one after another all three of my sisters and me were born in Moses Cone Hospital. Then my dad got a better position at Cal State Fullerton and off we went. California was so very dramatic in those first few years. I was only 3 1/2 when we first got there. I got very sick and was hospitalized before we left, and my younger sister Melissa was with a high fever when we moved out. What with sisters in and out of the hospital getting tonsils out, getting stitches for hitting our heads (usually me), not to mention floods and fires and Santa Ana winds, it was very dramatic being here in Southern California. Not only that as I recently learned the people who brought my father to the art department at Fullerton had a falling out with the department and he was left without a political foothold in the department.

And then there was a big earthquake, literally, a really big one. My bed slid across the room. Daddy said he was in the kitchen and felt like he was surfing. I have never been too much afraid after that of earthquakes; nothing has been that bad since in my experience, not even the Northridge one. So if you are ever freaking out during an earthquake just know that maybe I am the one who will be cool enough to check the gas line.

Ironically not long after that quake my parents separated and eventually divorced. The day my mother sat us down at the table to tell us they were getting divorced is a story for another day, and it’s pretty interesting in terms of mine and my sister’s reactions and how we all turned out. I used to perform a monologue I wrote about that day called “Divorce.” It is so very common now, but it wasn’t so much back then.

But before all that turmoil my parents were supposedly happy together, and we kids loved playing tiger with daddy (daddy on all fours, one kid on each leg, one on his back, one hanging from his stomach) in the hip orange rug living room of our modern house with the gorgeous tall windows and white painted fireplace. After you got out of the station wagon parked in the cool carport you opened the turquoise front door with the exaggerated large knob to an atrium where I bounced around on my blue hippity-hop. Sliding glass doors opened to a pebble walkway that looked like a river bed. We even had burlap covered closet doors. Outside, lining the front of the house, fun banana leaf and bird of paradise plants to run behind and a fairy ring of pink geraniums. Inside, beamed wooden ceilings and sleek Danish Modern sideboards and living room tables and chairs and lots of light. Daddy would come home from his studio in the Orange Circle off Chapman in his paint bespeckled coveralls and kiss our mommy. We were happy. Is it no wonder this is where my design aesthetic is stuck?

And don’t think this was the stuffy heavy Hollywood Regency coolness like you see on Mad Men with all the fake gold and big heavy ceramic ashtrays for smoking. Sure they smoked but they quit when I was seven and everyone grew two inches. My parents were hip and colorful and streamlined; think Marrimekko. They both had fair skin and dark brown hair. They made a beautiful couple. My dad wore these soft velour striped sweatshirts in blue and green and drove a light blue VW bug. He had a soft elegance about him, a quiet American earnestness. My mom made these bright bold patterned sleeveless dresses she called jumpers, and had her thick brown hair piled in a big bun on her head, and when my parents had dinner parties she would laugh and laugh through her bright red lipstick. I thought my mom was the coolest woman to walk the earth. She wore pantyhose. She was slim from her days as a dancer. My dad was handsome and funny. I learned later he was shy and reserved around strangers. And sometimes he would get mad. But to me he was silly and warm and fun, especially when we played tigers or went to the park to play on the swings.

I once asked my mom if she missed fashion design once she got married. She said she didn’t have time to think raising four girls. Besides which she was very creative making all our clothes and matching clothes for our dolls. Apparently my dad told her when they got married there would only be one artist in the family. “How could you let him say that to you?” I asked. Martha shrugged and said, “It was the fifties.” Wow.

But the time I am idolizing in my brain was when my parents were still together and I thought it would be like that forever. And it’s no wonder I find the 70’s aesthetic to be a little sleazy and uncomfortable. Oh sure now I can appreciate the kitschiness of a smoky plastic dining room set or a hang ten tee shirt or a hooked rug you hang on the wall or a torn boot clay planter, not to mention macrame. But at the time I cringed at the brown plaid couch we had in our rented townhouse that my mom got while she was selling our gorgeous wood paneled, high ceilinged, beautiful Eichler Tract home. I hated our Avocado fridge even though the Brady Bunch had one kind of like it. It took me a long time to wear brown and I still shy away from earth tones.

Case in point my current couch is a sectional in bright pink. Super kicky and bright. Maybe this is a combination of 60’s and 80’s. The eighties were when I came into my own as a young adult. I bought clothes at thrift stores and developed my own style. I wore stretch black denim skinny jeans (back in style!) with a long, cut-out neckline bright pink sweatshirt, and scarves; lots of scarves. I stopped being the girl from Orange County (who I never really was anyway) and embraced the midwest.

I have been back in California for many years. I love it here. But I don’t think I could ever live in Orange County again, despite the nice wide streets and ample parking they have there. No, I like LA and all it’s ethnic diversity. But it doesn’t mean I will ever give up my love for 60’s mod and mid century modern. No way. I guess to me it represents the new happy. It signifies a new life, the sense of possibility California presented to me and my family when we first moved here. And there is nothing wrong in staying stuck in that design bubble, so long as I mix it up with something new and keep it fresh, so long as I am aware of what I like and am not just drawn to it out of comfort. I have learned a lot about mid century design since then. Who knew the Eichler tract would turn out to be so revolutionary and famous? I didn’t. As a child it wasn’t design, it was home. Nothing wrong with going back home.

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