If the “retro” clean lines of the furniture and decor on TV’s “Mad Men” appeals to you, you’re not alone. The furniture and design that was all the rage in the ‘50s and ‘60s has experienced a resurgence.
A new exhibit at the Denver Art Museum spotlights the heyday of Charles and Ray Eames and Alexander Girard — designers who originated the groundbreaking aesthetic for the “modern” home, beginning in the early 1950s. “Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America” focuses on “creative interpretations of play” and features works from 40 designers, including the Eameses, Girard, Paul Rand and Eva Ziesel.
The exhibit, co-organized by DAM and the Milwaukee Art Museum, opened May 5 in Denver and is on display through Aug. 25. It has more than 200 works first exhibited in Milwaukee.
Darrin Alfred, DAM curator of architecture and design, recently led a media tour of the exhibit, which presents the “concept of play in postwar American design as a catalyst for creativity and innovation,” per a museum news release.
“Serious Play” takes a trifold look at design, focusing on the home, children’s play spaces and corporations. Along with furniture, toys and textiles, the exhibit incorporates music and film, creating an atmosphere that reflects the upbeat modernism and color palette of the era.
The gallery starts with a selection of enduring clock designs by Irving Harper, inventor of the ball clock, then winds through Eames and Girard living room vignettes and displays of childlike Eva Ziesel earthenware, and is complemented by bold printed textiles by Girard and Ray Komai.
Husband-and-wife designers Charles and Ray Eames “created storage for modern living,” such as interlocking shelving that could be rearranged to “make them a sort of expression of your own identity,” Alfred said.
Innovative children’s furniture and toys also are featured, as well as “invitations to play” throughout the exhibition, said DAM interactive specialist Ann Lamborn. One example is a hands-on display of tops next to a wall where an Eameses’ film about tops runs continuously. “Tops served as objects of inspiration for the Eameses,” Alfred said. “The films were never frivolous. They drew attention to things we see on a daily basis but don’t think about.”
Visitors are encouraged to play at a table covered with replica tops next to a glass-encased display of about 70 small playthings borrowed from the Eameses’ collection. Interactive Eames “House of Cards” are playing cards with four slots on each long end and two on the short ends, making them easy to interlock. Adults and kids can build their own houses of cards and watch Eameses’ films projected on the walls.
The exhibit portion devoted to corporate design features fabrics and designs by Girard, including a design/rebranding campaign for Braniff International airlines via a VIP lounge at Dallas’ Love Field in 1965.
“Today we take the idea of fun as being a critical part of commerce for granted,” Alfred said. “An airline’s whimsical identity or a corporation’s belief that creativity should be unrestrained and unburdened — these approaches don’t astonish us in the same way, because companies like Alcoa, Braniff and Herman Miller challenged designers to surprise the world through imagination and delight.”
The exhibit ends in a free play zone, with masks, toys and climbs up a giant red sculpture based on Isamu Noguchi’s study model for “Play Sculpture,” circa 1965-1968.
“I would say that’s the whole spirit of the exhibition, allowing for open-ended play,” Alfred said. “Having moments to play and sort of interact throughout the exhibition were really important to us.”
Boring furniture exhibit this is not.
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