"In a good old toy there is apt to be nothing self-conscious about the use of materials. What is wood is wood; what is tin is tin; and what is cast is beautifully cast." -
Ray and Charles Eames took child’s play seriously. They invented playthings, furniture, and films to spark young imaginations. Given their own ideas of fun, these toys tended to emphasize composition, structure, and building. Many of their designs embrace what kids and parents have long known: that the box an item comes in, especially if it’s a very large item, can be more exciting than the contents.
Set up in what appears to be the parking lot outside the Eames Office, Carton City is complete with stop signs, neighborly visiting, even miniature landscaping. Dotted lines printed onto the Eames Storage Unit shipping cartons indicate ideal locations for the entrance and windows with awnings, circa 1950. © Eames Office, LLC
The humble cardboard box offers children their first chance to make space for themselves, whether it's a race car, a robot, or a house. © Eames Office, LLC
As adults designing play things for children, the Eameses found inspiration in boxes and colourful paints. In 1951 The Toy was released by Tigrett Enterprises. It offered children the chance to make their own prefabricated structure, one more colorful and flexible than Carton City.
Ray Eames plays with an early prototype of The Toy outside the Eames House in 1951.
© Eames Office, LLC
The Toy combined thin wooden dowels, pipe cleaners, and a set of square and triangular stiffened-paper panels in green, yellow, blue, red, magenta, and black. Children could run the dowels through sleeves on the edges of the panels to strengthen them, and then attach these struts at the corners. Initially sold in a big, flat box via the Sears catalog, the Eameses soon redesigned this packaging, creating a far more elegant 30-inch hexagonal tube, into which all parts could be rolled and stored.
The first version of The Toy made spaces big enough for children to inhabit, like the cartons. The Little Toy, (top left photo) released in 1952, was scaled more like an architectural model, allowing children to radically reinterpret the dollhouse. © Eames Office, LLC
House of Cards originally came as two decks of 54 cards, with two slots on each side and one on the ends. The idea was to make construction of spaces as easy as possible. The notches more elegantly solve the problem of connections: no more dowels or wire frames, and no tools. Players got to choose 54 different patterns for the first deck, and 54 different photographs for the second.
The photographs and patterns on the House of Cards were chosen with much deliberation, intended to illustrate common objects like scissors, buttons, lockets, and lace whose everyday beauty might be overlooked. Tin cars and tin trains also appear. The notches on House of Card made them easier than The Toy to build with, as Charles Eames demonstrates, 1952. © Eames Office, LLC
The catalog for all three Eames toy products noted, “This group of toys has been happily received by parents and educators because they make available real color and real space through three construction systems of three greatly different sizes, all different and all brilliant.”
Cardboard offers an opportunity for a child’s first attempts to build and Ray and Charles Eames indeed offered a prelude to the more serious explorations of structure and material they embarked upon with houses, showrooms, and furniture. Cardboard comes into your house without designer packaging. Seeing its potential opens you up to a world in which any box contains a city and a lot of fun.
So this holiday season, keep some of those packing boxes that clutter your living room and add some paints and see what happens. Might be some serious fun.
Charles and Ray Eames developed a toy elephant made of plywood in 1945; however, it never went into production. Now manufactured in plastic, the Eames Elephant is available in five colours.
Whether as a toy (also good for outdoor use) or as an item for children's bedrooms, this friendly-looking animal with its distinctive, huge floppy ears should make the heart of many a child (and parent) beat just that little bit faster.
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