furniture on view in Serious Play

New Exhibition Explores the Influence of Play on Midcentury Design

Play energizes us and enlivens us. Play eases our burdens. Play renews our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.

– Darrin Alfred

Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America is the first major museum exhibition to present the concept of play, in mid-20th century American design, as a catalyst for creativity. Beginning in the late 1940s—after the trauma of World War II—American designers intentionally intertwined work and play, generating designs characterized by innovation and whimsy.

This merging of work and play gets at the heart of our thesis of the exhibition. Sometimes these designs looked playful, or whimsical, but we were also very interested in the ways in which designers worked, or in this context, the ways in which designers played… to problem-solve, interrogate issues, or communicate ideas.

In other words, play was not adjacent to their process, but essential to it.

The husband-and-wife design team of Charles and Ray Eames, who are featured in this exhibition, had an expression they used around the office that encapsulated this: “Take your pleasure seriously.” And like many of the designers presented in this exhibition, it was also an ideal that they truly lived, one that manifested itself in thousands of ways in their lives and work.

The exhibition is divided into three sections:

  • The American Home
  • Child’s Play
  • Corporate Approaches

Serious Play presents more than 250 works, by celebrated designers such as the Eameses, Alexander Girard, and Eva Zeisel, as well as many lesser-known designers, including Ruth Adler Schnee, Henry P. Glass, and Paul Rand. These approximately 40 designers, embraced the newfound freedom of the postwar era to create imaginative home décor, inventive toys, and corporate identities with a playful spirit.

We believe visitors to the exhibition will appreciate that play, today as in the mid-twentieth century, can be a serious and significant tool to discover new ideas and allow their imaginations to soar.

people with large animal masks over their faces in the theater area of Serious Play
The designers in this exhibition used play as a way to free their imaginations. For both children and adults, play is a universal way to learn about the world around us. Visitors are invited to pretend with masks in the Free Play Zone near the end of the exhibition.

Invitations to Play

Finally, throughout the exhibition, visitors of all ages are invited to explore how play might fuel their own creativity. Invitations to play throughout the galleries, include moments to spin toy tops, build with Charles and Ray Eames’s House of Cards, arrange a midcentury-inspired room on a digital screen, and compose with the classic Colorforms toy. In the Free Play Zone, children and adults can try on whimsical masks and bring them to life in a colorful theater, climb on or under Isamu Noguchi’s play sculpture, and creatively combine the components of Ann Tyng’s Tyng Toy.

There are also delightful videos by Charles and Ray Eames to enjoy throughout the exhibition, including Tops, Parade, and Toccata for Toy Trains.

Serious Play is co-curated by Darrin Alfred, curator of architecture and design at the DAM, and Monica Obniski, Demmer Curator of 20th and 21st Century Design at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

large red sculpture visitors can play on in Serious Play
Artist and designer Isamu Noguchi designed an entire suite of play sculptures intended to stimulate open-ended and creative play. Visitors are invited to crawl around and climb on this sculptural form. Isamu Noguchi, American, 1904–1988, Play Sculpture, 1975-76. Steel. Private collection

Darrin Alfred is curator of architecture and design and co-curator of Serious Play.

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