WHEN WORLD WAR II CAME TO AN END IN 1945, everything changed. Our world got a little more colorful, a little more playful and a little more provocative. Big band and jazz gave way to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Women’s fashion was defined by polka dots and poodle skirts. Films evolved from the wholesome appeal of “Singin’ in the Rain” to risqué fare like “Some Like It Hot,” which the Catholic Church considered “morally objectionable.”
Artists were taking chances—and design was no different. Americans bought bigger cars, moved into bigger homes and filled those homes with everything from televisions to kitchen appliances and, of course, furniture. From chairs in unlikely shapes forged of unlikely materials to clocks, shelves, dolls and toys, designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Alexander Girard injected a sense of playfulness that hadn’t been seen in decades. Their unique approach to the craft provides the lens for a new exhibit created by Milwaukee Art Museum curator Monica Obniski and Darrin Alfred, a Denver Art Museum curator. “Serious Play” opened in Milwaukee last September and lands in Denver from May 5 to August 25.
“When you tell people you’re creating an exhibit focused on mid-century modern design, they’ll often respond, ‘OK, great, been there, done that,’ says Obniski. “We’d respond, ‘Well, no — actually you haven’t seen it from this perspective.’
Home Sweet Home
One of the major themes the exhibit explores is the idea that Americans were increasingly using their homes to showcase their personalities, something already common among the One Percenters, but less so among members of the middle class. They learned it from films, from advertisements and from magazine spreads in Good Housekeeping and House & Home, whose editors noted that the major problem facing homeowners was the lack of adequate storage space. Unheralded items like shelving units — once considered bland and utilitarian — came out from behind closed doors to take on a starring role in store displays and photo shoots.
“Some of the early Herman Miller ads for the Eames Storage Units incorporated many of the items they were living with or featured in their studio—from butterfly kites and Native American baskets to items they’d found in nature like tumbleweeds, shells and starfish,” says Alfred. “The Eames were essentially teaching Americans how to incorporate objects that they’d been accumulating in more interesting and unusual ways.”
“The things that people surround themselves with are really part of our identity — part of how we see ourselves and how other people see us,” says Obniski. “Whether you surround yourself with philosophy books or cocinas that you picked up on a trip to Mexico, so that you can talk about them at a cocktail party on a Friday night, all of these things are imbued with meaning. And a lot of these concepts came out of mid-century modern design.”
Getting Down to Business
The approach extended beyond the living room and into the board room. From 1952 to 1973, Alexander Girard served as director of design for the textiles department at Herman Miller, where bold colors and unexpected folk art helped define his reign. In 1964, when creative director Mary Wells Lawrence was tasked with a major rebranding campaign for Braniff Airlines, she hired Girard and Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci for a campaign dubbed “The End of the Plain Plane.” The campaign tagline was, “We won’t get you where you’re going any faster, but it’ll seem that way,” and the two designers manufactured an explosion of color that mixed folk art with space-age design in a way that was surprisingly effective. Girard created more than 17,000 elements for Braniff, including color palettes splashed all over the inside and outside of its fleet, a custom typeface and textiles for upholstery and blankets. Much of it was inspired by his love of folk art from South American countries, which Braniff served with regular flights, of course.
“If you were to ask the average person on the street, they would probably tell you that folk art is antithetical to modern design,” says Obniski. “But Girard shows us really interesting ways that the two can, as he has said, ‘work in play’ in a modern way. What’s most exciting about his work is the way he incorporates these vernacular elements in a way that’s always fresh, interesting and unique, whether he’s focused on product design or interior design. I don’t believe there’s another modern designer who embraced folk art and used it as holistically as Girard.”
Alcoa was another unlikely company that contributed to mid-century focus on play. During WWII, aluminum was used in the production of aircraft, ships and millions of soldiers’ mess kits. After V-E Day, the aluminum industry was eager to persuade Americans that its product was valuable for more than pots and pans, so the company invited designers to create new and unexpected products that could show off the material’s versatility. Austin Cox designed an aluminum chess set. Lester Beall created a stereo system dubbed “the music sphere.” And as part of Alcoa’s 1959 “Design Forecast,” Charles and Ray Eames created the solar “Do Nothing” machine. Contrary to its name, the whimsical kinetic sculpture was one of the earliest examples of solar energy’s potential.
Blurring the Lines
To the Eames, there was little difference between turning a commercial project into a toy and turning a toy into a commercial project.
“Designers like the Eameses, Girard and George Nelson all saw play as an integral part of their process as opposed to something that was separate from their process,” says Alfred. “Charles Eames said, ‘Toys are not as innocent as they look — toys and games are the preludes to serious ideas.’ This idea of playing and tinkering and not necessarily having an end product in mind frees you up to imagine something in ways that you wouldn’t normally consider if you were looking for a solution to a problem.”
The Eameses’ creation, The Toy, was a full-size DIY construction kit made up of dozens of wooden dowels and colorful plastic-coated panels in the shapes of triangles and squares. Unlike similar toys of the era, which came replete with detailed instructions, The Toy was completely free-form, inviting children to create a theater or a playhouse or an airplane. The mash-up of Piet Mondrian and life-size Tinker Toys allowed children to manufacture their own worlds and then crawl inside of them.
“The ideas that the Eameses were developing, whether for children’s toys or their parents’ furniture, embodied the same concept of an industrial kit of parts that could be easily reconfigured again and again to construct whatever you could imagine,” says Alfred. That playful, “no rules” approach applied to their dozens of side projects, too, including short films like “Parade” and “Tops,” which had no particular goal beyond exploration. The couple recognized that the naiveté of a child opens up new worlds of creativity: Charles and Ray would often invite members of their staff to work on projects for which they had no particular expertise because that outsider’s perspective brought a new, expansive viewpoint to the process.
Today, the idea of incorporating play into our work is rather commonplace, from start-ups’ ubiquitous ping-pong tables to creative professionals’ “side-projects” that quickly turn into Etsy stores. But several designers seem to have sprung directly from the lineage of Eames and Girard.
Spanish furniture designer Jaime Hayon creates modern, minimalist sofas and chairs that wouldn’t be out of place in a Herman Miller catalog from 50 years ago; he also crafts playful vases and porcelain objects that use shape and color in clever ways that would’ve made Girard proud.
Dutch artist and designer Marcel Wanders partners with elite brands like Baccarat, Louis Vuitton and Swarovski, but he also creates goofy “balloon chairs” and bizarre “monster chairs,” and encourages employees to get away from the office by piloting the studio’s boat through the channels of Amsterdam.
Hella Jongerius, another Dutch designer, is known for her colorful textiles, ceramics and furniture. She displays her playful experiments and works in progress alongside her finished products on a widely followed Instagram account, where one of her recent posts sums up her philosophy: “Without play, there can be no design that inspires the user. Without foolishness and fun there can be no imagination.”