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From Tinkertoys to avocado greens: Denver Art Museum show presents play as a serious form of inspiration

Furnishings designers represented in "Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America" infused their work with playfulness and whimsy. Was it a reaction to Cold War-era anxiety?

Charles Eames with the Solar Do-Nothing Machine. In 1957. Charles and his wife, Ray, designed the toy for Alcoa. True to the Eameses’ belief that toys are not as innocent as they appear, the machine was one of the first uses of solar power to produce electricity. Other pieces of the Eameses work are included in "Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America," organized by the Denver Art Museum and the Milwaukee Art Museum. (Eames Office photo)
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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.)

Designed in 1957 by Lucia deRespinis, the only woman industrial designer who worked on Nelson Clocks, the Nelson Eye Clock still is produced by Herman Miller. (John R. Glembin photo)

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.

A photograph of Herbert Bayer’s Kaleidoscreen, installed in Aspen, Colorado, about 1957, is one of the objects of serious play included in “Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America.” The work is part of the Herbert Bayer Collection and Archive at Denver Art Museum.

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.

In the mid-1960s Alexander Girard was hired to redesign the corporate identity of Braniff International. Girard gave the airline a bold and distinct new appearance as he reconsidered everything from the colors of the airplanes and their interiors to the graphic materials used by the company. He used more than fifty varied textiles and designed new furniture for the project, including this chair that is included in “Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America.” (Wright photo)

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.


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