The design of play

How some of our leading designers responded to new thinking about the importance of play in education by creating beautiful toys

(Above: Ark, Rumbold Gallery, c. 1970, produced by Creative Playthings)

The notion of play as an integral part of learning gained ground in the 1960s and 70s as education and child development theories suggested a significant link between the two. During this time, several designers also turned their attention to the kinds of things that children needed for open-ended play; the result was a movement that rethought the formal elements of toy design and aimed to encourage imaginative activity through objects that were both tactile and stimulating but also beautiful. Balancing blocks and bricks, slotting shapes in card, wood or plastic emerged, with products like PlayPlax, Fizzog, Polyroly and Zic-Zag as inventive as their names implied. Other toys radically altered a familiar concept, such as Roger Limbrick’s Open Side Dolls’ House, first produced in 1963. Constructed without any exterior walls, this clever minimalist redesign enabled a group of children to access all of the rooms in the doll’s house at once.

Produced by companies like Galt, Abbatt Toys and Polypops Products in the UK, Creative Playthings in the US and Kurt Naef in Switzerland, a group of 30 examples were recently brought together for an exhibition called Play: Toys, Sets, Rules at the Walter Knoll showroom in London.

 Installation view, from left: Play Thoughts, Fredun Shapur, c. 1972, produced by Creative Playthings; PlayPlax, Patrick Rylands, 1966, produced by Galt
Installation view, from left: Play Thoughts, Fredun Shapur, c. 1972, produced by Creative Playthings; PlayPlax, Patrick Rylands, 1966, produced by Galt
Serpentino, Fredun Shapur 1980, produced by Kurt Naef
Serpentino, Fredun Shapur 1980, produced by Kurt Naef

Conceived by Systems, a curatorial group that examines the legacy of modernist design and reconnects its thinking to the present day, the show featured a range of toys designed by Ken Garland + Associates, Patrick Rylands, Roger Limbrick, Marion Hine and Fredun Shapur among others. For the show, the toys themselves were displayed as if they were elements or pieces within a game and, to enable visitors to engage with the exhibits at this level, information relating to the designs (and the designers) was included only on a printed guide.

Contributing designer Marion Hine also developed a series of children’s workshops as part of the exhibition. These followed on from her collaborative work with Limbrick and the philosophy of play that the exhibiting designers sought to promote, where children are encouraged to develop making and thinking processes rather than aiming for a finished article.

 Fizzog, Ken Garland + Associates, 1970, produced by Galt
Fizzog, Ken Garland + Associates, 1970, produced by Galt
 Plytek, Ken Garland + Associates, c. 1965, unrealised prototype for Galt.
Plytek, Ken Garland + Associates, c. 1965, unrealised prototype for Galt.

In a short film which accompanied the show (available on the Systems website) the assembled designers discuss how they came to create these objects, which now occupy a dual role as both playthings and design pieces. “The language of object and touch is as important, if not more important, than any other,” says Rylands, many of whose toys are now 40 years old. “Reading a book or playing a game is one kind of thinking, but actually thinking about how things go together, just seeing things in different ways, involves a different kind of thought process,” adds Hine. “People often say, ‘How do you play with these toys?’ And the only answer to that is, well, put it in front of a child and see.”

Systems are currently producing a book to accompany Play: Toys, Sets, Rules, which was exhibited at the Walter Knoll showroom on Charterhouse Square in London in June and July.

 Fish and Bird, Patrick Rylands, 1970, produced by Trendon Toys
Fish and Bird, Patrick Rylands, 1970, produced by Trendon Toys

Photography by Systems.More details available at systemsproject.co.uk

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