Five things Charles & Ray Eames teach us about play Posted December 1, 2015 by Marlow Hoffman
1) Interactive play is often a form of learning
The Eameses used play as a form of learning; they applied this concept to their 1961 exhibition Mathematica (still on view today), thereby offering others the same opportunity. Charles and Ray pioneered the interactive exhibition format and demonstrated the merit of experiential, accessible, and fun learning environments.
The Eameses revealed the genuine fun of math and science to the broadest possible audience, letting “the cat out of the bag,” as Charles said. In organizing Mathematica, Charles and Ray worked with a talented staff and sought out experts in their field; yet they also followed one of their cardinal rules for any endeavor: They never delegated understanding. They committed themselves to unraveling every problem themselves. Philip Morrison said that, having worked as a consultant in a variety of offices, “…some of which had equally daunting artifacts around them, it was only at the Eames Office that the boss knew what they all meant.”
For decades, exhibition designers have looked to Mathematica as a model. Charles and Ray strived to develop an exhibition that would “…be of interest to a bright student and not embarrass the most knowledgeable,” in order to best reveal the inherent fun of ideas.
2) Toys are a prelude to serious ideas
Charles and Ray often said that, “Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are the prelude to serious ideas.” One of their grandsons, Eames Demetrios, explained their love for toys with this story: “My brother once brought a Super Ball up to the house, and he promptly broke a third-story window with it—Charles thought this was an excellent proof of concept. He said, ‘This toy is gonna work.’”
The Eameses fascination with toys, and their belief in the importance of playing with them, is one of the many reasons that they designed their own. In 1951, they created The Toy (pictured above) to be enjoyed by people of all ages. This idea is exemplified by the text on the instruction sheet:
The Toy is designed for many colorful hours of fun for the whole family, and each member can share and enjoy The Toy in his own way.
The baby as a bright world to grow in–
The small child as houses and tunnels and tents to play in–
The boys and girls as towers, puppet theaters, large and exciting structures–
The high school age as brilliant party decorations, plays and pageant sets–
In college as campus and house decorations, fantastic and brilliant hanging objects
to hover over a junior prom–
Young men and women, clubs, civic organizations, floats and festivals–
The Toy gives each one the means with which to express himself in big structures
and brilliant colors.
Creating a playful experience that everyone could benefit and learn from was a common theme throughout Charles and Ray’s work.
3) It pays to practice “prepared spontaneity”
Charles and Ray had an immense love for the circus. One might think of the circus as the ultimate space for play, but what most intrigued the Eameses about it was the prepared spontaneity of the show. They knew that it takes extreme rigor and diligence to put on an engaging circus act. For this kind of play to be successful and look effortless, everyone involved must be nimble—and that only comes with hard work. In a speech Charles presented to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he said:
In the actions of circus people waiting or rehearsing or preparing to perform, there is a quality of beauty, which comes from appropriateness to a given situation. There is a recognized mission for everyone involved. In a crisis there can be no question as to what needs to be done. The circus may look like the epitome of pleasure, but the person flying on a high wire, or executing a balancing act, or being shot from a cannon must take his pleasure very, very seriously.
Charles and Ray applied these ideas to their own work, and they believed everyone else could too.
4) Play is found in the connections
Charles and Ray knew that learning and play often intersect. Through their Eames House of Cards, we gain associations from various arrangements; we see that building something is an ongoing and often collaborative process; and we begin to appreciate the “uncommon beauty of common things.” In creating the Eames House of Cards, Charles explained:
…we began to take photographs of objects which we, ourselves, cared for very much. And soon, the objects began to build up a pattern. And as Ray put it, before we get through, we’ll have a set of cards that will be great fun for anyone from eight to 115 years old. And they include things like spools of thread, a metronome, and a bunch of old buttons and things.
Now this seems innocuous enough, in itself, but the fact is again you have relationships. I mean, whether it’s a child or an adult looking at a series of these images in relationship to each other, why the meanings change.
5) Play can lead to innovation
Charles often implored us to “Innovate as a last resort.” It may be true that “More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other,” but focused play can lead to innovations that positively impact society as a whole.
In 1957, the Eameses accepted a commission to help the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) with a new marketing initiative. They decided to create what they called the Solar Do Nothing Machine—a deceptive name, given that this colorful, whimsical kinetic toy was powered by solar cells. The husband-and-wife team tried making the machine with everything from steam and flash boilers to turbines and air motors before determining what would work best.
Charles noted that, “A demonstration of solar energy as a practical source of power appeared to be a not uninteresting way of promoting resource conservation.”
And he was right. Through play, Charles and Ray engineered something remarkably forward-thinking for their time—something that we continue to apply to our world today.
Check out Herman Miller’s new WHY article on Charles and Ray Eames, by clicking here.