The UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum opened its “Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House” and “Catherine Opie Photographs Cliff May” exhibitions this week.
“Carefree California” revolves around mid-1900s architectural designer Cliff May’s works. He is known for transforming the ranch house into an iconic representation of Californian lifestyle. The installation is part of the Getty Foundation’s “Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980” collaborative illustration — featured in over 60 cultural institutions across Southern California — depicting the city’s rise as a social and artistic hub.
College of Letters and Science Communications Director Deirdre O’Shea said the exhibitions carry a “cool ‘50s to ‘60s vibe” matching May’s interest in popular culture and the era’s changing views toward civil rights and individualism.
“May was showcasing a kind of glamour in the concept of California living, but he also wanted to democratize the ‘pacesetter’ model homes into something that all people could afford,” O’Shea said. “In addition, his designs aren’t dated. People today still want to live in his houses.”
May mixes the romantic rancho and Western style with modern casual living in designs ranging from modest, regional and affordable houses of adobe, tile, stucco, wood and brick to minimalistic, modernistic luxury structures with patios, glass corridors and integrated gardens.
According to AD&A Museum Acting Director Bruce Robertson, the architectural style significantly influenced the state’s modern design.
“I now see Cliff May everywhere,” Robertson said. “It’s like when you learn a new word and you start seeing or using it constantly. The exhibitions are beautiful and I encourage people to go look at them. They will discover that by being in California, they live in a Cliff May universe. They will suddenly start seeing and understanding things about California that they might not have ever realized before.”
Robertson said the title of the exhibition reflects May’s image of Californian life and culture.
“California is a result of marketing,” Robertson said. “For Cliff May, the work he did was really central to the state’s identity. Sunshine, a surf culture, a reputation for being easy and beautiful — it’s all about the lifestyle. He was sending an image of living where there was no separation between the indoor and outdoor. Everything is gracious and carefree, casual and elegant. Everything is possible.”
The AD&A Museum’s Architecture and Design Collection provided the various exhibit pieces including additional works from 20 other California architects, Robertson said.
“The great coup for us is that every single object is drawn from our own sources,” Robertson said. “It makes a very powerful statement about the importance of our collection.”
Additionally, the “Catherine Opie Photographs Cliff May” exhibit features 15 color photographs from contemporary artist and UCLA photography professor Catherine Opie. Opie is known for using portraiture, landscapes and architecture to explore concepts of community and identity.
Opie exhibit curator Elyse Gonzales said the images explore May’s “elegant, chic and timeless” design qualities in a contemporary perspective.
“What I love about [Opie’s] commission is that she does not go through and record every single architectural detail [of May’s houses],” Gonzales said. “Instead, she imparts the ideas that are important to May through a meandering tour of the homes. She puts her aesthetic eye on the designs, and we get a sensation of what it is like to be in these homes.”
The show also includes four student-designed installments inspired by May’s work. Jon Sandberg’s graph billboard with the museum logo, Jamie Stoneman’s picnic table made of recycled redwood from old bike racks on campus and Jake Kelly-Campbell’s “CAREFREE” sign made of large orange letters are placed outside the museum. Dean Song’s trellis of grape stakes — flat wooden stick elements used in many of May’s designs — is located inside the museum lobby.
Robertson said the displays offer students a unique opportunity to showcase their work in a professional setting.
“These art students have produced absolutely professional, first-quality work,” Robertson said. “It’s like publishing research into a major journal, except in this case, the students are creating substantial work that they can put into their portfolios.”
The museum features other student works such as the didactic panels of wall text and the “Seeing the Museum” exhibition — located inside the Student-Initiated Projects Space and curated by Athena Do and Jamie Stillman — depicting the museum’s design history.
“Carefree California” and “Catherine Opie Photographs Cliff May” will run through June 17.