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Book Preview: "Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America" - How Materials & Technology Shaped Design

3. August 2019 22:17

By Bill Esler, Editor, IWF Network News

Yale University has published "Serious Play: Design in Medcentury America." It tracks the rise of commercial and consumer design trends following World War II as new materials and technologies enabled designers for Herman Miller and other corporations to move in vibrant new directions.

On the consumer side, following World War II, Americans began accumulating more and more goods, spurring a transformation in the field of interior decoration. Storage walls became ubiquitous, often serving as a home’s centerpiece.

Designers such as Alexander Girard encouraged homeowners to populate their new shelving units with folk art, as well as unconventional and modern objects, to produce innovative and unexpected juxtapositions within modern architectural settings.

"Playfulness" as a term of art can also be seen in the colorful, child-sized furniture by Charles and Ray Eames, who also produced toys. And in the postwar corporate world, the concept of play is manifested in the influential advertising work of Paul Rand.

Set against the backdrop of a society that was experiencing rapid change and high anxiety, the book Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America takes a revelatory look at how many of the country’s leading designers connected with their audience through wit and imagination. Edited by Monica Obniski and Darrin Alfred, includes essays by the editors, as well as by Amy Auscherman, Steven Heller, Pat Kirkham, and Alexandra Lange. 

Ann Landi, reviewing the book for the Wall Street Journal  notes, "As several contributors . . . point out, many designers . . . rejected a dogmatic modernism and hungered for something beyond rational and utilitarian motives.’The post-World War II era was marked by an acquisitive appetite, for which designers like Charles and Ray Eames and Alexander Girard devised colorful multitiered storage units, while ceramists like Eva Zeisel created charming table accoutrements to fill them.”

The book contains over 25 pages of materials checklists sourcing the numerous furnishings and designs included in its pages. 

Co-editor Monica Obniski is Demmer Curator of Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Design at the Milwaukee Art Museum, which hosted a related show earlier this year. Co-editor Darrin Alfred is curator of architecture, design, and graphics at the Denver Art Museum.  Learn more or order the book at Yale>>