A brave and fascinating attempt to pull together the various strands of, mostly, commercial creativity in southern California in the middle of the last century. Case Study Houses and other modern architecture, the output of Pacific Jazz and Contemporary records, abstract art by John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, furniture design by Charles and Ray Eames are some of the exciting design ideas that blossomed during the affluent tailfin fifties in the sunshine of the Golden State.
The book concentrates on architecture, abstract art, movies, furniture and graphic design. Missing (and I would have thought a good contributor to 'cool') is beat writing but as the book is a catalogue to a visual exhibition it's hardly surprising that it only gets a passing mention. Of the nine essay contributors I though those by Elizabeth Smith and Thomas Hine the most interesting. Smith is the author of the most thorough book on Southern California architecture (Blueprints For Modern Living) and her essay `Domestic Cool' puts architecture exactly in context. Hine's contribution: Cold War Cool really belongs in the front of the book as a succinct overview of the subject.
The visual importance of `cool' in the book is revealed by a chapter that looks at the photographic work of William Claxton. He probably took a photo of every West Coast cool jazzman which were used extensively on the LP covers of Pacific Jazz and Contemporary Records, he designed many of them, too.
As the book is a permanent reminder of the exhibition it covers I thought it was a pity that the editorial has several flaws. There is a thirty page chapter devoted to the year 1959. The editors considered this a pivotal time and wanted to put the book's essays in context. These pages just contain large news photos and related graphics and as such assume much more importance than they are worth. The idea is a good one but a spread devoted to a text timeline would have worked as well freeing up pages for more images in the rest of the book.
The page design seems very arbitrary to me. Many pages have a deep eau de nil band running horizontally across the middle but on some spreads it is missing. The inclusion of this band seems pure designer whimsy and if it wasn't included readers would not be aware of something missing. They unfortunately would be aware of the many missing page numbers though. Frequently captions refer to images on a particular page by their number, also the forty-three pages of historical printed material have no numbers at all but items in this section are often referred to in the index. All of this is really inexcusable for a quality (and expensive) publication though I understand it is not untypical of exhibition catalogues.
The book celebrates the up-market aspects of cool in a particular place and time. To read about down-market cool have a look at 'The Catalog of Cool' by Gene Sculatti. He surveys popular culture at the other extreme in mid-century California and America.
***FOR AN INSIDE LOOK click 'customer images' under the cover.