‘What’s your ism?’

For our first CTS assignment I was asked to produce an essay exploring a curtural artefact, contextualising it within a given modernist movement.

I decided to base my essay on ‘Case Study No. 22’ 1960, a photograph of Stahl house taken by Julius Shulman.

Shulman was an American architectural photographer, who attempted to capture the aura of modernist buildings within his photographs. ‘Case Study No. 22’ is almost certainly his most famous image for this reason, it represents modern California living and helped people understand Modernism.


Alongside my essay I have been set the task of reinterpreting an everyday object through a modernist movement of my choice, based on the research of my essay, and producing a powerpoint presentation. This presentation should highlight my working process, outline the principles of the movement I have chosen and how it affected my decision making.

This exercise is intended to combine theoretical and practical aspect of research.

My initial thoughts are panic, because I didn’t base my essay around a specific movement within modernism, it was more general modern photography of modern american architecture.  So I started looking further into it and discovered Shulman’s work is classed as ‘Mid-Century Modern’. “Mid-Century Modern is an architectural, interior, product and graphic design that generally deserves Mid 20th century developments in modern design, architecture and urban development.” It happened from roughly ‘1933-1965’ and was all about experimenting with organic forms and integrating with nature. This meant that in terms of architecture, it was about bringing the outdoors in, through large glass windows/walls and open plan spacious living areas.

Although function was as important as form in Mid-century designs, it needed to meet the needs of the average american family. At this time in california, the war had ended and there was a population boom, meaning architects needed to design low cost housing and things that could be mass produced. This was frequently as the ‘California Modern style’, which sounds really cool and I started looking into this more. I know it isn’t a modernist movement as well refined as surrealism for example, but I think that might make it more interesting.

The city of Palm Springs in California is known for it’s many examples of Mid-Century modern architecture.

Paul Williams, Palm Springs Tennis Club, 1946

Albert Frey, Alpha Beta Shopping Center, 1960

Richard Neutra, Kaufman House, 1946

So having decided that my movement is ‘California Modern’, I needed to decide upon an everyday object to reinterpret. The problem with everyday objects is that because you see and use them everyday you don’t tend to take notice of them. This makes it hard to think about them being interesting. So I had a look at the results of typing ‘everyday objects’ into google and found this site.  http://everydayobject.wordpress.com/ which was quite inspiring seeing ordinary objects being used for a new purpose.

After looking through a few more of these pages I decided to explore redesigning money as my object, in a California Modern way.

I read that with an average annual inflation rate of 4.1%, $1 in 1960, is roughly equal to $7.15 in 2009.

I looked at the 1 dollar bill design:



  • President George Washington is featured on the Obverse, with the Great Seal of the United States on the reverse.
  • The portrait of George Washington is is propped up by bunches of Bay Laurel leaves.
  • To the left of George Washington is the Federal Reserve District Seal. The name of the Federal Reserve Bank that issued the note encircles a capital letter, (A-L), identifying it among the 12 federal reserve banks.
  • To the right of George Washington is the Treasury Department seal. The balancing scales represent justice. The chevron with thirteen stars represents the original thirteen colonies. The key below the chevron represents authority and trust; 1789 is the year that the Department of the Treasury was established.
  • Below the Federal Reserve District seal is the signature of the Treasurer of the U.S, and below the USDT Seal is the Secretary of the Treasury’s signature.
  • On the edges are olive branches entwined around the 1’s.
  • The reverse of the one-dollar bill has an ornate design which incorporates both sides of the Great Seal of the United States to the left and right of the word “ONE”.
  • Both reverse and obverse of the Great Seal contain symbols of historical, political, religious, and numerological significance.
  • The reverse of the seal features a barren landscape dominated by an unfinished pyramid of 13 steps, topped by the eye of providence within a triangle. At the base of the pyramid are engraved the Roman numerals MDCCLXXVI (1776), the date of American independence from Britian. At the top of the seal stands a Latin phrase, “Annuit Coeptis” meaning “He (God) favors our undertaking.” At the bottom of the seal is a semicircular banner proclaiming “Novus Ordo Seclorum” meaning “New Order of the Ages,” which is a reference to the new American era. To the left of this seal, a string of 13 pearls extends toward the edge of the bill.
  • The obverse of the seal on the right features a bald eagle a symbol of the United States. Above is a cluster of 13 stars arranged in a 6 pointed star. The eagle’s breast is covered by a  shield with 13 stripes that resemble those on the American flag. As on the first US flag, the stars and stripes stand for the 13 original states of the union. The eagle holds a ribbon in its beak reading “E PLURIBUS UNUM” a Latin phrase meaning “Out of many [states], one [nation],” a de facto motto of the United States. In its left talons the eagle holds 13 arrows, and in its right talons it holds an olive branch with 13 leaves and 13 olives, representing, respectively, the powers of war and peace. To the right of this seal, a string of 13 pearls extends toward the edge of the bill.
  • The motto, “In God We Trust”, was required to appear on all currency. In 1929 all currency was changed to the size of 156 × 66.3 × 0.11 mm,  making it a ‘small size note’.

I had no idea there was so much depth and symbolism involved in the design of the one dollar bill, it makes me want to investigate other dollars and the english pounds.

My initial response was to alter the portrait figure in the obverse side, so I tried looking into Californian Idols. I didn’t have a lot of luck so I started looking up famous people who were born in California instead. Obviously I would rather have people who were famous for being Californian though. I used Leonardo Di Caprio as a prototype and created the image below.

But then I realised that Leonardo wouldn’t have been famous of an idol in the 1950/1960s. Whereas figures like James Dean, Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe were, so i decided to go with James Dean.

In this image I have replaced George Washington’s portrait with one of James Dean, and replaced ‘WASHINGTON’ with ‘DEAN’ in the small banner below the image.

It was at this point in my investigation I realised that someone out there had already designed a James Dean based dollar bill..

..But hopefully my design have slightly more depth to it.

II added palm trees and a road to my design, as if it were a california highway.

I then tidied up my design by bringing text and the seals in front of the trees and highway so they were still visible. Added ‘CALIFORNIA’ above the portrait, and tidied up the trees around the edges.

Whilst researching for this I came across lots of interesting information which I had originally intended to include on my design, but now it seems like this is all that the design needs, and to add more to it would surely just clutter it up and make it too busy.

I have not got the point of California modern across as well as I had intended too, it was a lot harder to communicate it than I had imagined. I think it works well as a California Dollar, but not as a California modern dollar, simply because I should have spent more time looking into Mid century modern graphics, and taken inspiration from that.

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