For Charles and Ray Eames, toys and games meant serious business. The American design duo have been avid collectors of playful ephemera and revered the act of playing, as a strategy for designers to deploy in service of attacking problems elliptically. A closer look at their understanding of toys alongside a presentation of items amassed by the duo come together as part of an online exhibition titled Toys and Play, hosted by The Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity, the web-based platform responsible for stewarding the pair’s remarkable body of work.
“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, the youngest granddaughter of Ray and Charles, and the chief curator of the Eames Institute. The exhibition peeks into toy collectibles from the Eames Collection as well as archival vignettes from the pair’s life showing their elaborate interests in play and whimsy. Spinning tops, a circus mirror, tricycles, kites, and a barrel organ are among the product designs and allied items on display at the exhibition, while displayed archival photos show the Eameses photographed around curious artefacts.
‘Highly evocative, and instructive,' in tandem with being ‘free from self-expression, self-consciousness, and pretensions on the part of the maker,’ the revered industrial and product designers recognised this seeming anonymity of toys as a paragon of good design. The duo collected hundreds of such toys throughout their lifetime, some of which also appeared in many films and documentaries conceived by them. The film Tops (1969) offers a visual celebration of the ubiquitous spinning toys; an archival photo from the design exhibition shows Charles and staff member Alex Funke documenting one of the film’s 123 featured tops in motion. The 1957 film Toccata for Toy Trains, shot in a studio located alongside the Eames House, narrates the story of a voyage through the use of eclectic vintage toys. A photo of the same is available for viewing at Toys and Play. The Eames studio at 901 Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles during the mid-1950s served as a fond location for the duo to experiment with filmmaking. Tinkering with lights and cameras, the duo immersed themselves in the magic of filming as they used a smorgasbord of whimsical props to bring their visions to life. Some of these glimpses can also be seen in the online exhibition.
While a large part of the Eameses’ oeuvre could be described as playful, the duo also conceived various toys through their design lens. In 1957, the couple designed a solar-powered toy for Alcoa’s Design Forecast program: here, the toy featured photovoltaic cells that powered six small motors animating an assembly of aluminium elements. For Herman Miller’s first showroom in Los Angeles (designed by the duo in 1949), a photograph of the space featured in the Toys and Play exhibition shows a wall sporting a display of decorative kites as the backdrop of a living space dotting George Nelson furnishings.
Key items showcased within Toys and Play include the 'Grand Duke' Ives Toy Train which was gifted to Charles Eames by filmmaker Billy Wilder; the four-wheel pedal cart called the Kettler Car that largely entertained Eameses grandchildren; the Goldfish Kite which hung on the walls of the American designers’ studio and home for years and also appeared in Herman Miller’s showroom staging and advertising; and the bouncing toy Superball.
Charles Eames once said, “toys are really not as innocent as they look. Toys and games are the preludes to serious ideas.” The online showcase reinforces the potential of toys as more than pleasing diversions to tools reimagining the world of design. Launched on November 15, 2023, the Toys and Play exhibition will follow the release of a catalogue delving more into the inspiration the Eameses sought in the pieces. The documentation will be illustrated by photos, artworks, as well as an essay by San Francisco-based author Sam Grawe.