Review: ‘Serious Play’ at the MAM is Infectiously Joyful

Head to the Milwaukee Art Museum through Jan. 6 to see this design-focused art exhibit.

Walking through Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America — Milwaukee Art Museum’s latest curated exhibit — is like walking through an upside-down, Willy Wonka-fied Pottery Barn catalogue.

Of course, most of the artists featured aren’t even artists per se. Rather, Serious Play shines a spotlight on the innovative interior designers and ingenious engineers who, through wit, subversiveness and creativity, rebelled against the mass-market manufacturers of their day to introduce color, personality and, above all else, a sense of pure fun into everyday America during the baby-boom decades.

Alexander Girard, Armchair for Braniff International VIP lounge, model 66310, c. 1968. Vinyl, urethane foam, latex foam, molded plywood, cast aluminum, and woven textile upholstery of cotton, wool, and nylon. Collection of George R. Kravis II. Image courtesy of Wright.

Serious Play owns a biting sense of duality, acting as both a carefully curated art collection and a memorial to the punk rock domestic designers who bucked trends and gave a middle finger to the white-picket-fence, Leave it to Beaver homogeneity that glazed over American homemaking culture.

Not quite sure what that means? I didn’t either, at least until I saw the analogue clocks reworked to resemble human eyes; a teardrop-shaped chair painted over to show how a young woman might sink in, crisscross style; and a wire porch bench spun to resemble a happily married couple sitting for a chat. It’s all about finding the play in the practical; a literal intersection of art and engineering.

Pieces from over 40 designers and artists are divided into three distinct sections: domestic life, children’s spaces and corporate America. In each, visitors will find how imagination invaded serious design work and changed the tastes of our consumer culture.

Publicity photograph, House of Cards, 1952. Archival image courtesy of Eames Office LLC. © Eames Office LLC (

While seeing how color and creativity crept into the adult world in the 1950s is interesting to be sure, Serious Play hits its peak in its middle, the child-centric portion. It’s a reverse-engineering of the rest of the exhibit, in which principled design and engineering found their way into a world already pumped full of vibrant colors and exciting ideas: toys.

“Toys and games are preludes to serious ideas,” says innovative toy designer Charles Eames, whose many works are heavily featured. By introducing order and boundaries into playtime, toy designers somehow handed the keys to creativity for kids. Anyone should be able to recognize the litany of proto-LEGOs on display: interlocking Tinkertoys, the brightly colored building blocks and the magical Magnet Masters.

And because it’d be cruel to show off play-things without a space for play-time, Serious Play offers visitors a chance to get some hands-on time with a slate of innovative toys. One of the great joys of visiting was watching a child, cheerful grandparents in tow, rip through a row of eclectic spinning tops, and swing his hands like a wrecking ball to flatten a three-feet tall Eiffel Tower-esque house of cards (that I had just delicately crafted not fifteen minutes earlier!). With the genius of the toy design fully on display, the joy was infectious. If Serious Play needed a thesis statement, it’d be this.

Arthur A. Carrara, Magnet Master 400, 1947. Cardboard box and steel plates. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase with funds from the Demmer Charitable Trust, M2016.153. Photograph by John R. Glembin.

Later on, a series of posters by Paul Rand illustrates graphic design’s inevitable evolution from fuddy-duddy sub-field into a legitimate space for visual creatives — and how corporate America couldn’t get enough of the new eye-popping typefaces and the shapes and designs tied in with them.

All in all, Serious Play asks us to look at our world a little differently. Why be plain when you could pop? Anything as simple as splashing a sofa with mismatched patterns and textures can open eyes and spark brain creativity.

Most importantly, perhaps, growing up doesn’t mean forgetting to have fun. Being practical doesn’t mean we can’t still play.

Go See It: Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America runs through Jan. 6, 2019 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Admission is $19 for non-members. Plan for 45 to 60 minutes through the exhibit.