Milwaukee Art Museum
Press Release

Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America Premieres at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Exhibition features works from 40 groundbreaking designers, including Charles and Ray Eames, Paul Rand and Eva Zeisel

By - Sep 11th, 2018 02:02 pm
Milwaukee Art Museum.

Milwaukee Art Museum.

Milwaukee, Wis. – September 11, 2018 – Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America, an exhibition presenting the concept of playfulness in postwar American design as a catalyst for creativity and innovation, opens September 28, 2018 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

“While midcentury American design may be familiar to some audiences, this exhibition sheds light on work by many designers from the perspective that play can be a serious form of experimentation,” said co-curator Monica Obniski, Demmer Curator of 20th- & 21st-Century Design, Milwaukee Art Museum. “The spirit of play, and its importance to the cultural production of the period, is evidenced by the playful domesticity of Alexander Girard’s storage walls and table settings, as well as by the inventiveness of architects, such as Anne Tyng, who designed modular building toys to encourage creativity in children.”

Co-organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum, Serious Play includes over 200 works. By showcasing iconic objects such as Irving Harper’s Ball Clock for Howard Miller Clock Company and Charles and Ray Eames’s Storage Units (ESUs) for Herman Miller Furniture Company, the exhibition encourages visitors to think about how design connects to their daily lives.

“Today, we take the idea of fun as being a critical part of commerce for granted,” said co-curator Darrin Alfred, Curator of Architecture, Design and Graphics, Denver Art Museum. “An airline’s whimsical identity or a corporation’s belief that creativity should be unrestrained and unburdened—these approaches don’t surprise us in the same way because companies like Alcoa, Braniff and Herman Miller challenged designers to surprise the world through imagination and delight.”

In conjunction with Serious Play, thousands of giant cards originally designed by Ray and Charles Eames and decorated by individuals through the community will be constructed into large-scale sculptures by local artist Ray Chi and installed in Windhover Hall and the East End. During monthly Community Build Days, visitors will have the opportunity to decorate extra cards and help Chi construct additional displays. An additional card decoration and build day for families will take place during the Kohl’s Art Generation Family Sundays: The Joys of Toys on December 2.

“Design is highly approachable for our visitors, especially today when people are surrounded by more thoughtfully designed experiences than ever before. This exhibition is not only an opportunity to highlight this pivotal moment in design history, but also engage visitors in a new way,” said Marcelle Polednik, Ph.D., Donna and Donald Baumgartner Director, Milwaukee Art Museum.

A full-color, hardcover exhibition catalogue, published by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, will be available in The Museum Store. An activity-filled family family guide for Serious Play is free with Museum admission at the entrance to Serious Play.

Serious Play will be on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum from September. 28, 2018 through January 6, 2019. The exhibition then travels to the Denver Art Museum, opening May 5, 2019, and will be on view through Aug. 25, 2019.

Exhibition Sponsors

Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America is co-organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum. It is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The presentation in Milwaukee is generously supported by the Brady Corporation Foundation and Herman Miller Cares.

Programming at the Milwaukee Art Museum

All events take place at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and are free for Members.
Events are free with individual Museum admission, excluding MAM After Dark.
All events that take place on Meijer Free First Thursdays are free for individuals.

Admission for kids 12 and under is free every day thanks to Kohl’s Cares.

Group and school tours interested in any events, activities, or tours of the exhibition should contact 414-224-3842 or

Thursday, October 11, 6:15 p.m.
A Modern Education: Learning from Froebel, Wright, Tyng, and Noguchi
With Alexandra Lange, Architecture Critic, Curbed
Sponsored by BSI

Thursday, November 8, 6:15 p.m.
Creating the World: Noguchi and Play
With Dakin Hart, Senior Curator, Noguchi Museum, New York
Sponsored by Wright Auctions

Thursday, November 29, 6:15 p.m.
The Serious Play of Alexander Girard
With Monica Obniski, Demmer Curator of 20th-& 21st-Century Design
Sponsored by Nici Teweles, in Memory of L. William (Bill) Teweles

Gallery Talks
Tuesday, October 2; Tuesday, November 6; Tuesday December 4, 1:30 p.m.
With Monica Obniski, Demmer Curator of 20th- & 21st-Century Design

Thursday, November 29, 5:30 p.m.
With University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students

Express Talks
Thursday, October 4; Thursday, November 1; Thursday, December 6; and Thursday, January 3, noon and 5:30 p.m.
Take a 30-minute art break and explore Serious Play with a Museum expert.

Family Events
House of Cards Project: Community Build Days
Thursday, October 4; Thursday, November 1;  and Thursday, December 6, 2:00–6:00 p.m.
`Visitors of all ages can help local artist Ray Chi build House of Cards displays at the Museum.
Sponsored by Herman Miller Cares

Kohl’s Art Generation Family Sundays: The Joys of Toys
Sunday, December 2, 10:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m.
Celebrate the art of play, with a modern twist. Inspired by the objects in Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America, families can make their own toys, meet a game designer and stroll through Carton City, a town made of cardboard boxes.

House of Cards Decorating
Giant cards will be available for decorating in the Kohl’s Art Generation Studio while Serious Play is on view. The Kohl’s Art Generation Studio is open every day the Museum is open.

MAM After Dark: Midcentury Mixer
Friday, October 19, 7:00 p.m.–11:00 p.m.
Free for Members, $12 in advance, $14 at the door
Visitors can celebrate the era of the exhibition Mad Men-style at the Midcentury Mixer. The evening celebrates Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America and the Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s exhibition Blacklist: The Hollywood Red Scare with a romp through the 1950s and 1960s. MAM After Dark events are sponsored by Northwestern Mutual, with Ernst & Young LLP as the evening sponsor of October’s event.

About the Milwaukee Art Museum

Home to a rich collection of more than 30,000 works of art, the Milwaukee Art Museum is located on the shores of Lake Michigan. Its campus includes the Santiago Calatrava–designed Quadracci Pavilion, annually showcasing three feature exhibitions, and the Eero Saarinen–designed Milwaukee County War Memorial Center and David Kahler‒designed addition. In 2016, after a yearlong renovation, the Museum reopened its Collection Galleries, debuting nearly 2,500 world-class works of art within dramatically transformed galleries and a new lakefront addition. This reimagined space also allows for the presentation of additional changing exhibitions. For more information, please visit:

About the Denver Art Museum

The Denver Art Museum is an educational, nonprofit resource that sparks creative thinking and expression through transformative experiences with art. Its holdings reflect the city and region—and provide invaluable ways for the community to learn about cultures from around the world. Metro citizens support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), a unique funding source serving hundreds of metro Denver arts, culture and scientific organizations. For museum information, call 720-865-5000 or visit

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