Design with whimsical attributes—puffy motifs, exaggerated proportions, unexpected colors—often get described as “playful.” For many designers, however, play is all about process. That was the case for Charles and Ray Eames, the husband-and-wife duo whose visionary contributions to 20th-century design need no introduction. To the Eameses, play meant undertaking an activity simply for the value of the activity itself, developing connections and seeing where they lead by engaging in a process of trial and error. It also meant amassing thousands of toys strewn throughout their L.A. office as both brainstorming fodder and pleasant diversions. “Toys are not as innocent as they look,” Charles famously said. “Toys and games are the preludes to serious ideas.”
The duo’s predilection for play underscores “Toys & Play,” the latest exhibition from the Eames Institute for Infinite Curiosity, a virtual archive and gallery that aims to spread their ingenuity. The show features a trove of ephemera pulled from their archives, from a group of spinning tops and a circus mirror to tricycles, kites, and a barrel organ. Playing with these toys and studying their design attributes fed the studio’s intellect and proved instructive as they wove means of enjoyment into just about everything they did. In doing so, they sought to replicate the mindset of a curious child constantly observing their surroundings. Incorporating play in their design process enabled the studio to tackle problems elliptically, unburdened by self-consciousness and pretensions.
“For Ray and Charles, playing was a portal to serious ideas like understanding an unseen force like gravity becoming visible, as I witnessed when I dropped a marble down the musical tower and listened to the notes play,” says Llisa Demetrios, chief curator of The Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity and the duo’s youngest granddaughter. “For me, toys were empowering tools of ‘found learning.’ Having fun and learning without realizing you were—that was the best game growing up.”
Perhaps the show’s biggest revelation involves how the Eameses tempered their job’s serious elements—museum shows, corporate clients, exhaustive prototyping—with an undeniably fun outlook. It’s hard to believe the same designers whose technical mastery yielded the molded plywood chair also carved out a spirited world where plywood elephants, animatronic puppet shows, and films about trains were standard fare. In his memoir, former Herman Miller CEO Hugh De Pree recalled a 1954 meeting at the Eames Office that turned into an “exhausting but exhilarating” all-night filmmaking session where they watched wind-up toys waddle. “I learned that night that it was important to care, it was important to be concerned about what you were doing, that the details were vital,” he wrote. “I learned about quality. I learned about excellence.”