Baby, It's 'Cool Outside'

New Marin exhibit shows modern design sprouting in gardens of the mid-century
Fridays on the Homefront
"I try to take people on a little bit of a journey," says veteran landscape architect JC Miller about his new 'Cool Outside' mid-century modern landscape exhibit, which runs through summer '21 at the Marin Art and Garden Center. Below are several photos that show off some of the exhibit displays. Photos courtesy JC Miller

'Cool' may be the most versatile four-letter word in the English language that is not actual profanity.

The commencement of its popular use as slang is attributed to mid-century jazz saxophonist Lester Young, and was then coopted by trumpeter Miles Davis to describe his 1957 answer to the bebop genre, the album 'The Birth of the Cool.'

A new exhibit, 'Cool Outside,' at the Marin Art and Garden Center offers yet another take on the ubiquitous term. The exhibit just opened a two-month run through August 22 at the MAGC location, 30 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Ross. Admission is free.

The Orange County Museum of Art lifted the Miles Davis album title for its 2007 creation of a traveling exhibit, 'Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at the Midcentury,' which indelibly impressed Bay Area landscape architect JC Miller—with one major objection.

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"'Birth of the Cool' was a great show," Miller said with admiration recently after several hours spent at the Marin Art and Garden Center preparing his own contribution to interpreting what is truly cool.

'Cool Outside' covers what the garden designer found to be an important shortcoming of the OCMA exhibition, that being its relative neglect of modernist design in American yards and gardens.

"This is actually 'Cool Outside 2.0,'" Miller quipped in describing the evolution of the new show, which stemmed from a previous iteration he produced ten years ago. Back then, Miller was director of the certification program in landscape architecture for University of California at Berkeley Extension, and first tried to fill in the missing piece in the original 'Cool' exhibition, but he had only a small display space in the university's downtown San Francisco facility.

At the 11-acre Marin Art and Garden Center, Miller said happily, "This is the kind of space I was trying to do then…This space is five times the size."

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"The Marin Art and Garden Center celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding in 2020," informs a press release from MAGC, continuing, "and in 2021 we are putting the spotlight on the mid-century design heritage of the Center." This laudable goal becomes more challenging, however, when portraying a design heritage as easy to misunderstand as 'cool.'

"Not all modern design is 'cool,' and not everything cool is modern," Miller cautions, adding, "I'm trying to describe an aspect of modern design."