The Toy is an Eames design whose function is obvious by hearing its simple name. However, its origins took inspiration from a more complicated idea of structure: from Buckmister Fuller’s mathematical theories.
Released to children across the country in 1951, The Toy was neatly packaged in a hexagonal tube. Its contents were simple: triangular panels of thick paper, wooden dowels, and colored wire attachments. When speaking about the toy’s early design stages, Charles and Ray made it known that many of the Eames Office’s projects were designed for or inspired by a particular friend, and often translated into a product for the masses. Of The Toy, Charles once said, “I suppose we were thinking of Bucky Fuller.”
Buckminster, or Bucky, Fuller, as a person, is nearly impossible to define neatly. He was a mathematician, an inventor, an architect, a lecturer, an engineer, a poet. He was just as much a learner as he was an educator; he was tirelessly seeking answers to questions most people didn’t know to ask. The act of being near Fuller gave others the sense that their world was expanding, too.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Fuller coined the terms: Tensegrity Sphere, tensional integrity, vector equilibrium, platonic solids, and Dymaxion. He was building a new language of words and diagrams to illustrate novel concepts of physics—to explain the structures of molecules and to further understand the engineering of buildings. His biographer Hugh Kenner wrote of the Tensegrity Sphere, “Everything seems to be hanging from everything else. Common sense says it ought to collapse in a jumble. It doesn’t. . . .This is all such fun that we may forget to ask what it may mean.” For Fuller and his audience of theorists, students, and architects, this collection of wires and sticks modeled energy’s even distribution through space. The sphere represented the tetrahendron-structured molecules of all living tissue, whether it be the squirrel scurrying past your feet, the tree providing you ample shade in the summertime, or your very kind neighbor. One of Fuller’s students at Black Mountain College formed the Tensegrity Mast from his ideas; a few years later, it was later displayed in a Buckminster Fuller exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Does it look familiar?
The nearly-miraculous physics of structure and an efficient use of materials were also priorities of Charles and Ray’s projects. There was a simultaneous enjoyment and serious rigor to all of the Eames Office’s designs. The Toy was no exception. Its dowels and flat surfaces serve as metaphors for the building blocks of matter. They can be formed into a series of configurations: a theatre, a boat, a tiny house. It embodies a sense of connectedness and geometry, just as Bucky was expressing.
In 2017, the Eames Office re-released The Toy with brightly-colored triangular panels that shout nostalgic feelings straight from the 1950s. While sliding the wooden dowels through the triangle’s sleeves, we hope you’ll be thinking of Buckminster Fuller. After all, Charles and Ray were.
Read the introduction to the Eames Archives: An Image as an Idea series here, and stay tuned for monthly installments.