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"Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America" explores how a playful approach led to innovative and iconic postwar American designs like these. Photo by James Florio, courtesy of the Denver Art Museum

The Denver Art Museum’s Latest Exhibition Is Serious Fun

On view now, Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America examines the influence of play in postwar American homes.

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Midcentury modern design is having a moment in Denver this summer—one a bit more cerebral than walnut-and-brass mania, and a lot more fun. Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America—on view at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) through August 25—encourages fans of the postwar style to look beyond the clean lines to examine how these playful designs reflected big cultural shifts—and inspired fresh ideas for home furnishings, children’s toys and play spaces, and even corporate identities.

The idea for the show started with a lunch, when Darrin Alfred, the DAM’s curator of architecture and design, and Monica Obniski, Demmer Curator of 20th and 21st Century Design at the Milwaukee Art Museum, discovered their shared interest in Alexander Girard, a leading postwar designer known for his playful take on domesticity. An exhibition concept formed and, over the past three years, the duo (and exhibit’s co-curators) have scoured museum collections, private archives, and auctions to assemble a collection of more than 200 objects from the late 1940s through the early 1960s.

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Separated into toys, home furnishings, and commercial products, Serious Play includes works on paper, models, textiles, furniture, ceramics, films, toys, playground equipment, and product design. Notable designers—think: Charles and Ray Eames, Eva Zeisel, Isamu Noguchi—share the spotlight with lesser-known names, including Henry P. Glass and Estelle and Erwin Laverne.

Here, Alfred shares three pieces to look for when you visit Serious Play this summer.

“Serious Play” opens with a selection of iconic midcentury modern seats, including George Nelson’s bold red Marshmallow Sofa. Photo by James Florio, courtesy of the Denver Art Museum

Marshmallow Sofa

This red sofa—a George Nelson design comprising 18 circular cushions—helps open the show. “Younger, adventurous consumers were looking for something different after the drab war years,” Alfred says of the eye-catching design. “An interest in color and pattern was driven by young consumers and younger designers beginning to live this way.” The piece was (and still is) manufactured by the Herman Miller company, which features prominently throughout Serious Play—and for good reason: This is the retailer known for bringing modern designs to market at prices middle-class families could afford.

Charles and Ray Eames, Eames Storage Unit (ESU) 400 series, about 1949. Photograph © Denver Art Museum

Eames Storage Unit (ESU)

As consumerism took root after World War II, families began looking for clever ways to store and display their new possessions. Alfred acquired this storage piece—an Eames first edition ESU 400 Series—at auction. “Charles and Ray Eames addressed the willingness of Americans to have flexible ways to display their collections,” he explains. “They offered a playful way to decorate and display. This piece could work anywhere, from a child’s room to an office.”

Charles and Ray Eames, Sofa Compact, 1954, with Colorado Plaid textile designed by Alexander Girard. Photograph © Denver Art Museum

Eames Sofa Compact

The “sofa compact”—a piece scaled for spaces too small to accommodate a traditional sofa—was particularly popular in institutional settings; this one found its way to Colorado State University. This particular sofa—designed by Charles and Ray Eames and manufactured by Herman Miller—shows off Alexander Girard’s “Colorado Plaid” textile. The colorful fabric was designed as a test swatch, but CSU thought it was just right. Love the look? Herman Miller used this very sofa to recreate the bold plaid fabric, and the re-edition is available for your sofa today.

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If you go: Serious Play will be on view at the Denver Art Museum through August 25. It debuted at the Milwaukee Art Museum September 28, 2018, through January 6, 2019.

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