Serious Play

Design in Midcentury America
Opens May 5, 2019

Ray Eames with the first prototype of The Toy, 1950. © Eames Office LLC (


Charles and Ray Eames, Eames Storage Unit (ESU), about 1949. Birch plywood, laminated plywood, enameled Masonite, fiberglass, and enameled steel; 59 × 27 × 17 in. Manufactured by Herman Miller, Zeeland, Michigan. Denver Art Museum: Funds, by exchange, from Mr. and Mrs. John C. Mitchell II, Calvina Morse Vaupel in memory of Calvin Henry Morse, Mrs. George Cranmer, Charles E. Stanton, Charles Bayly Jr. Collection, Mrs. Claude Boettcher, Dr. Charles F. Shollenberger, Mr. Ronald S. Kane, Frances Charsky, Dorothy Retallack, Mrs. Alfred B. Bell, Charles William Brand, Doris W. Pritchard, Mrs. F. H. Douglas, Mrs. Calista Struby Rees, and Jane Garnsey O'Donnell, 2017.208. © Eames Office LLC ( Photograph © Denver Art Museum

Irving Harper for George Nelson Associates, Sunflower clock, 1958. Lacquered wood, enameled aluminum, and enameled brass. Manufactured by Howard Miller Clock Company. Collection of William and Annette Dorsey. Photograph by John R. Glembin.

Charles and Ray Eames, House of Cards, publicity photo, 1952. © Eames Office LLC (

Vinegar bottle, Gravy Boat, with Ladle

Eva Zeisel, Marmite bowl, salt, and pepper, 1953. Stoneware. Manufactured by Monmouth Pottery. Oil/vinegar bottle and gravy boat with ladle, 1964. Earthenware. Manufactured by Nihon Koshitsu Toki Company. Collection of Scott Vermillion. Photograph by Scott Vermillion.

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. Photograph by John R. Glembin.

Herbert Bayer’s Kaleidoscreen installed in Aspen, Colorado, about 1957. Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive, Denver Art Museum. Photograph courtesy Denver Art Museum.

Screenprint from Ray Komai

Ray Komai, Masks textile, 1948–49. Screenprint on cotton. Manufactured by Laverne Originals. Collection of Edgar Orlaineta. Photograph by Edgar Orlaineta.

May 5, 2019 – August 25, 2019
Hamilton Building - Level 2
Included in general admission
Purchase general admission tickets online.

Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America presents the concept of playfulness in postwar American design as a catalyst for creativity and innovation. This exhibition will explore how employing playfulness allowed designers to bring fresh ideas to the American home, children’s toys and play spaces, and corporate identities.

During the 1950s and ’60s, a number of factors came together to make this bold design innovation possible. Diverse materials and manufacturing techniques opened up possibilities for new approaches to design and larger-scale production. Larger disposable income and leisure time of a growing middle class offered more possibilities for designers to help Americans discover a new way of living at home through thoughtfully designed objects. An emerging focus on child development prompted an interest in children’s furniture and placed a fresh emphasis on the importance of smart toy design. Pervasive Cold War anxiety created a desire to bring positivity and escapism into everyday spaces. Architects and designers that took advantage of all these new opportunities thrived.

Co-organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum, the exhibition includes over 200 works in various media, ranging from works on paper, models, textiles, furniture and ceramics to films, toys, playground equipment and product design. Organized around three themes—the American home, child’s play, and corporate approaches to design—the exhibition encourages visitors to consider how design connects to their daily lives.

A full-color, hardcover exhibition catalog will be published by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum and in association with Yale University Press. Essays will give voice to the exhibition’s thematic threads and will reveal new scholarship on the topic of play in postwar American design.

Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America is co-organized by the Denver Art Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum. It is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Melinda and Ken Krei are supporting sponsors of Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America in Milwaukee. The presentation in Denver is generously supported by the donors to the Annual Fund Leadership Campaign and the citizens who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). Promotional support at the Denver Art Museum is provided by 5280 Magazine, CBS4, Comcast Spotlight, and The Denver Post.