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Bill Stern in February of 2020. Photo: Charles Rosenberg.
Bill Stern in February of 2020. Photo: Charles Rosenberg.

Bill Stern (1941–2020)

Bill Stern, a curator and avid collector whose fascination with California pottery led him to found the Museum of California Design, has died at age seventy-eight at his home in Los Angeles. The many exhibitions he contributed to either as organizer or lender include “California Design: From Missions to Modernism” (2001) and “California Design, 1930–1965: ‘Living in a Modern Way’” (2011).

Stern was born in New York City in 1941. After receiving his undergraduate degree from the University of Alaska in 1964, he returned to his hometown to study comparative literature at Columbia University. Stern moved to Los Angeles in the ’70s, where, drawing on his extensive knowledge of languages, he found work in the movie-dubbing industry. In 1981, an adult-film-star neighbor gifted Stern a set of Vernonware dishes, made in the nearby industrial city of Vernon, California, thus igniting his passion for ceramics. His connoisseurship developed throughout the decade alongside his career as a Los Angeles food and restaurant critic for the LA Times and LA Weekly.

In 1999, Stern started the pop-up curatorial project the Museum of California Design (MOCAD), a traveling platform focused on archiving and displaying the state’s commercial design, “from cups to cars, from sideboards to surfboards, made of every conceivable material.” “California Design: From Missions to Modernism,” an exhibition organized by Stern that debuted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2001, was one of MOCAD’s first undertakings. For 2011’s edition of Pacific Standard Time, he acted as a consulting curator for “California Design, 1930–1965” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; many objects in the show were borrowed from his own holdings. The following year, “California’s Designing Women, 1896–1986”—a game-changing survey of over two hundred pieces by forty-six female industrial designers, including Edith Heath, Gere Kavanaugh, and Ray Eames—premiered at the Autry Museum of the American West. MOCAD programming also included “Frank Gehry: 40 Years of Product Design, 1972 to 2012” (2015) and “Plastics from Paradise: California Modernizes the American Lifestyle” (2017). Stern is survived by his cousin Margaret Stern of New York.