edited by Monica Obniski and Darrin Alfred. Yale University Press, October 2018. 244 p. ill. ISBN 9780300234220 (h/c), $50.00.
Reviewed January 2019
Monica Obniski, curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Darrin Alfred, curator at the Denver Art Museum, present the exhibition catalog to accompany their exhibit Serious Play: Design in Midcentury-America arguing “play is a type of learning; taking it seriously is a part of culture.” Post-war designers looked to play as the path to innovation, blurring work and whimsy. Play and improvisation was a praxis to trigger ideas. These professional designers worked in cultural milieu of burgeoning consumerism and the popularization of “do it yourself” (DIY) trends.
The catalog’s eight chapters are collected into three categories: domestic life, children’s spaces, and corporate America. In “Playful Domesticity,” Obniski explores the American home through functional/decorative storage wall systems, especially, George Nelson’s Storagewall and the Eames Storage Unit. “Charles and Ray Eames: Serious Play, Serious Pleasure,” by Pat Kirkham, looks at the Eames’ improvisations and folk art collecting, which were pivotal to their design practices. Amy Auscherman in “What is a Clock, Anyway?” focuses on Irving Harper, who introduced a playful design language for common domestic objects. Kirkham, “Eva Zeisel: The ’Merry-Souled’ Designer’s Playful Search for Beauty,” shows how Zeisel’s mass-produced ceramic tableware designs expressed post-war humor and whimsy with three-dimensional bird forms.
In “Toys as Furniture/Furniture as Toys,” Alexandra Lange represents children’s spaces, showcasing child-scaled furniture, textiles, and architect-designed toys. Designers Anne Tyng (Tyng Toy), Frank Caplan and Martha New (Hollow Block), Arthur Carrara (Magnet Master), Ruth Adler Schnee (Humpty Dumpty), and Henry Glass (Swing-line series) are highlighted.
Lastly, whimsy in corporate America is explored. Obniski’s “Alexander Girard and Play in the Corporate Environment” demonstrates corporate engagement “in serious business while also using quirky imagery, lightheartedness, and levity” epitomized by Girard’s Textiles & Object Shop and the Braniff VIP Lounge. Steven Heller, “The Play Principle: Paul Rand and Graphic Design,” uses advertisements and packaging for El Producto cigars to demonstrate how Rand created serial comedy. In “Serious Business: The Wonderful, Imaginative Spirit of Alcoa’s Forecast Program” Alfred discusses how corporate investments in speculative design thinking helped increase share in the markets for specific materials, e.g., aluminum.
This scholarly catalog will engage the broadest spectrum of museum and art communities, including collectors, scholars, and students. Similar publications in topic and quality are: Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) by Amy Ogata and Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000 (Museum of Modern Art, 2012) edited by Juliet Kinchin.
This well-written and researched catalog covers more than forty designers with 270 exemplary items sourced from archives and public/private collections, reproduced in fifty-one black-and-white and 153 color high quality illustrations. Endnotes follow each chapter. The volume includes a checklist, illustration credits, and a six-page index.