Press Release  October 1, 2018

"Serious Play" Takes a Serious Look at Midcentury Design

Courtesy Denver Art Museum

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

© Eames Office LLC (

Ray Eames with the first prototype of The Toy, 1950.

The Milwaukee Art Museum and Denver Art Museum are pleased to announce Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America, an exhibition presenting the concept of playfulness in postwar American design as a catalyst for creativity and innovation. Serious Play will explore how employing playfulness allowed designers to bring fresh ideas to the American home, children's toys, and play spaces and corporate identity. The exhibition opened September 28, 2018 at the Milwaukee Art Museum and will travel to the Denver Art Museum where it will be on view starting May 5, 2019.

“While midcentury American design may be familiar to some audiences, this exhibition sheds light on work by many designers from the perspective that play can be a serious form of experimentation,” said co-curator Monica Obniski, Demmer Curator of 20th- & 21st-Century Design, Milwaukee Art Museum. “The spirit of play, and its importance to the cultural production of the period, is evidenced by the playful domesticity of Alexander Girard’s storage walls and table settings, as well as by the inventiveness of architects, such as Anne Tyng, who designed modular building toys to encourage creativity in children.”Co-organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum, Serious Play includes over 200 works. By showcasing iconic objects such as Irving Harper’s Ball Clock for Howard Miller Clock Company and Charles and Ray Eames’s Storage Units (ESUs) for Herman Miller Furniture Company, the exhibition encourages visitors to think about how design connects to their daily lives. 

Courtesy of Merrill C. Berman

Paul Rand, El Producto, The Way to a Man’s Heart, 1953-57. Lithograph. Collection of Merrill C. Berman.

“Today, we take the idea of fun as being a critical part of commerce for granted,” said co-curator Darrin Alfred, Curator of Architecture, Design and Graphics, Denver Art Museum. “An airline’s whimsical identity or a corporation’s belief that creativity should be unrestrained and unburdened—these approaches don’t surprise us in the same way because companies like Alcoa, Braniff and Herman Miller challenged designers to surprise the world through imagination and delight.” 

© Eames Office LLC (

Charles Eames with House of Cards construction, 1952.

In conjunction with Serious Play, thousands of giant cards originally designed by Ray and Charles Eames and decorated by individuals through the community will be constructed into large-scale sculptures by local artist Ray Chi and installed in Windhover Hall and the East End. During monthly Community Build Days, visitors will have the opportunity to decorate extra cards and help Chi construct additional displays. An additional card decoration and build day for families will take place during the Kohl’s Art Generation Family Sundays: The Joys of Toys on December 2. 

“Design is highly approachable for our visitors, especially today when people are surrounded by more thoughtfully designed experiences than ever before. This exhibition is not only an opportunity to highlight this pivotal moment in design history, but also engage visitors in a new way,” said Marcelle Polednik, Ph.D., Donna and Donald Baumgartner Director, Milwaukee Art Museum. 

A full-color, hardcover exhibition catalogue, published by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, will be available in The Museum Store. An activity-filled family family guide for Serious Play is free with Museum admission at the entrance to Serious Play. 

Serious Play will be on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum from September. 28, 2018 through January 6, 2019. The exhibition then travels to the Denver Art Museum, opening May 5, 2019, and will be on view through Aug. 25, 2019.

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