The Play's The Thing

Milwaukee exhibition showcases how play shaped postwar American design

Art Design
Arthur A. Carrara, Magnet Master 400, 1947. Cardboard box and steel plates; 2 1/8 × 10-3/8 × 6-1⁄4 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase with funds from the Demmer Charitable Trust, M2016.153. (John R. Glembin)
Arthur A. Carrara, Magnet Master 400, 1947. Cardboard box and steel plates; 2 1/8 × 10-3/8 × 6-1⁄4 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase with funds from the Demmer Charitable Trust, M2016.153. (John R. Glembin)

A new exhibition coming to the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) and Denver Art Museum (DAM) will explore how the spirit of play has become a serious part of design conversation. Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America will open on September 28 at the MAM and will move to the DAM on May 5 next year.

Alexander Girard, Armchair for Brani International VIP lounge, model 66310, about 1968. Vinyl, urethane foam, latex foam, molded plywood, cast aluminum, and woven textile upholstery of cotton, wool, and nylon; 26 × 40-1⁄2 × 29 in. Manufactured by Herman Miller. Collection of George R. Kravis II. (Courtesy Wright)

The exhibition takes a close look at the cultural production of mid-century America. Postwar architect and designer Alexander Girard was a pioneer in introducing playfulness into the household with his flexible and imaginative wall storage units and eye-popping armchairs and ottomans. Architect and professor Anne Tyng was also a key figure in merging the fields of play and architecture, developing a modular system where plywood pieces can be assembled into anything from a toy to a piece of furniture.

Charles and Ray Eames, Eames Storage Unit (ESU), c. 1949. Birch plywood, laminated plywood, enameled Masonite, fiberglass, and enameled steel; 59 × 27 × 17 in. Manufactured by Herman Miller. (Courtesy Denver Art Museum)

The exhibition will include over 200 works in different media, from paper crafts, to mid-century favorites like plywood and composite boards. It will revolve around three themes: the American home, child’s play, and corporate approaches to design. Items such as Irving Harper-designed clocks, the Eames Storage Units, and videography of Ray and Charles Eames will be featured.

Irving Harper for George Nelson Associates, Kaleidoscope clock, 1959. Lacquered wood, chrome-plated steel, transfer-print on acrylic, and enameled aluminum; 11-3⁄4 × 13-1⁄2 × 7-1⁄4 in. Manufactured by Howard Miller Clock Company. Collection of William and Annette Dorsey. (John R. Glembin)

Pieces by lesser-known designers fill the show. A color-blocking cabinet made of lacquered Masonite and birch, the Swing-Line Toy Chest, by Henry P. Glass will be on view as well as lithographs by the graphic designer Paul Rand along with stoneware by dinnerware and home goods designer Eva Zeisel.

Henry P. Glass, Swing-Line Toy Chest, 1952. Lacquered Masonite and birch; 31-3⁄4 × 33 × 17-1⁄2 in. Manufactured by Fleetwood Furniture Company. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase with funds from the Demmer Charitable Trust, M2015.85a,b. (John R. Glembin)

Arthur Carrara’s toy design (shown at top) is a highlight. The Chicago architect and designer created magnetic toys inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Houses and the modern movement. First sold in a yellow cardboard box, the set includes metal plates with magnetic joints, and children were encouraged to explore their creativity by building three-dimensional sculptures.

According to a statement from the DAM, a myriad of different factors came together to allow for the bold design of the fifties and sixties. “Diverse materials and manufacturing techniques opened up possibilities for new approaches to design and larger-scale production.”

As average income grew and leisure time increased after WWII, a larger segment of the population was able to afford high-design items. They turned their attention towards childhood development and were willing to invest in child-friendly furniture pieces and designer household objects. The statement also attributed “escapism into everyday spaces” to the anxieties of the Cold War.

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