You can almost hear vintage America breathing a sigh of relief — the midcentury modern design exhibition at the Denver Museum of Art celebrates a time of post-War optimism, rejuvenation and experimentation.
Architects and designers led the country in a giant exhale, welcoming a bright (if sometimes avocado-green) future in everything from decor to advertising, toys to dinnerware. “Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America” features some 40 designers in more than 250 pieces, complemented by a soundtrack including 1950s bossa nova.
At the start of the atomic age, designers dispensed with formality and let loose. The period, late 1940s through ‘60s, has been celebrated in imitations and knockoffs ever since. (Of course the exhibit concludes with a gift shop, where more such items are for sale.)
If you played with Tinkertoys or windup tops as a kid, if you admired the progressive energy of George Nelson’s wall clocks modeled on sunflowers or balls, or if you visited the Monsanto House of the Future at Disneyland’s Tomorrowland back in the day, this sprawling show is a jolt of nostalgia. Even if you can spot an Eames plastic or plywood chair or an Irving Harper Marshmallow sofa at 50 paces, there is lots to learn about the textile designs by Ruth Adler Schnee and Alexander Girard screen print on linen accompanying them.
“Serious Play,” co-organized by DAM and the Milwaukee Art Museum, launched last fall in Milwaukee before traveling here for a May 5 opening. Darrin Alfred, DAM’s curator of architecture and design, co-curated the show with Monica Obniski, of the Milwaukee Art Museum.
The whimsical show is organized in three groupings, focused on the American home, child’s play and corporate approaches to design. The corporate section is least impressive despite the Paul Rand marketing artwork for El Producto cigars, the Braniff travel posters and Alcoa’s aluminum designs. (Typifying the mood of the era, a vintage Alcoa ad reads, “Forecast: There’s a world of aluminum in the wonderful world of tomorrow.”) The home furnishings and kids’ toys most effectively bring the serious play narrative to life.
Husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames seem to dominate overall, from furniture to storage units to toy prototypes. Their motto, “take your pleasure seriously,” informs the whole show.
Among the serious playthings featured is one with a Colorado connection: Herbert Bayer’s Kaleidoscreen, installed in Aspen, is featured as a model and in a vintage photograph here.
Where does Colorado fit in in terms of exhibiting the midcentury modern ethos? “Our museums have significant strength in this area,” said co-curator Darrin Alfred, DAM’s curator of architecture and design. He noted Denver grew exponentially in the post-War era, experiencing a boom that resulted in the Arapahoe Acres neighborhood, for example. There was plenty to draw on, including from the neighboring Kirkland Museum.
Alfred’s only regret as co-curator was not having access to the Eames’ solar toy, “the Do-Nothing Machine,” to exhibit. It is represented in photographs and films.
The works are familiar, not least because pop culture has kept the style front and center (see “Mad Men” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”) And while museums have featured certain of the artists’ works before, Alfred claims this is the first time this large a sampling has been brought together.
While fashion is not included and lighting is only minimally referenced, the idea was to “narrow the focus,” he said, to living spaces, toys designed by architects and corporate installations created by architects and designers. It’s certainly a fun assemblage — and that’s the point.