Playful Design, Serious Message: Learning & Play in the 1970s

A selection of educational products from the 1970s, recently installed in MAM’s 20th- and 21st- Century Design Galleries, tells the story of two pressing issues in the United States during the period through the lens of design for children.

Kent Dickinson (American, active 1970s), manufactured by Odlot Game Company (United States, active 1970s), Metradoms: a Game of Metric Dominos, 1976. Plastic and paper. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Daniel Ostroff M2017.28. Photo by John R. Glembin.

Kent Dickinson (American, active 1970s), manufactured by Odlot Game Company (United States, active 1970s), Metradoms: a Game of Metric Dominos, 1976. Plastic and paper. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Daniel Ostroff M2017.28. Photo by John R. Glembin.

First, the issue of metric conversion is represented by the record album Songs of Metric Man and the game Metradoms: A Games of Metric Dominos (a recent addition to MAM’s Design Collection). Both aimed to teach children how to use the metric system in anticipation of “metrification,” or the adoption of metrics as the standard system of measurement in the United States. From our twenty-first-century perspective, this may not seem like a particularly divisive political issue, but in the 1970s, American were divided between those who perceived the shift from feet to meters as step towards greater economic and scientific cooperation with the rest of the world, and those who viewed the system as an unwelcome invasion of foreign customs.

However, by 1975, when designer Kent Dickinson created his Metradoms game, the national shift to the metric system was overwhelmingly seen as inevitable. This was due in large part to the passage of the Education Amendments of 1974, which declared it “the policy of the United States to encourage educational agencies and institutions to prepare students to use the metric system of measurement” and the introduction of the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, which stated, “the policy of the United States shall be to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States.”

Kent Dickinson (American, active 1970s) Manufactured by Odlot Game Company (United States, active 1970s), Metradoms: a game of metric dominos, 1976. Plastic and paper. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Daniel Ostroff M2017.28. Photo by John R. Glembin.

Kent Dickinson (American, active 1970s), manufactured by Odlot Game Company (United States, active 1970s), Metradoms: a Game of Metric Dominos, 1976. Plastic and paper. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Daniel Ostroff M2017.28. Photo by John R. Glembin.

Dickinson’s Metradoms was produced by his own Odlot Game Company and sold for around $10 at Bloomingdale’s and by mail-order. Based loosely on traditional dominoes, the game offered a fun and colorful way to master metrics. Players matched hexagonal tiles marked with metric quantities. Three colors differentiated between measurements for weight (grams), length (meters), and volume (kilos). Gameplay and learning were both aided by included instructions, conversion charts, and metric pocket guides.

Ewald Breuer (Active United States, 1960s–1970s), distributed by Orsatti Productions, Inc., Metric Records Division (Santa Monica, California, founded 1975), Songs of Metric Man, 1976. Vinyl and printed cardboard. Private collection.

Ewald Breuer (Active United States, 1960s–1970s), distributed by Orsatti Productions, Inc., Metric Records Division (Santa Monica, California, founded 1975), Songs of Metric Man, 1976. Vinyl and printed cardboard. Private collection.

Similarly, the 1976 record Songs of Metric Man tells the story of a superhero who spreads metric understanding through songs such as “I Weigh with Kilos” and “It’s Easier with Liters.” The album’s colorful cover is reminiscent of other popular educational cartoons of the era (most notably the Schoolhouse Rock! Series) and represents “metrification” in a cheerful and positive light. In the same year, the album’s producer, Orsatti Productions, released a cartoon-version, titled “The Adventures of Metric Man.” Despite these efforts to prepare young Americans for a life measured in metrics, by the late 1970s it became clear that metrification was doomed to fail.

 

In the same decade, feminist organizations in the US created used strategies related to learning and play to spread messages of gender equality. The New York-based Women’s Action Alliance (WAA) initiated the Non-Sexist Child Development Project under the leadership of educator Barbara Sprung. In 1974, the WAA published the Guide to Non-Sexist Early Childhood Education, in which Sprung details the history, theory, and curriculum of the project, whose broad aim was to “free girls and boys of sex-role stereotyping and allow them to develop to their fullest potential.” The guide also contains a list of non-sexist materials, such as toys, games, and didactic photograph, and includes a number of products that the WWA produced in collaboration with two major toy companies (namely, Milton Bradley Company and McGraw-Hill’s Instructo Corporation division).

One such toy was the My Family Play People, a set of twelve paper dolls now on view in the Museum’s design galleries. These meticulously-rendered dolls depict three generations, include black and white figures, and intentionally depict women without aprons around their waists or babies in their arms. According to Sprung, this toy frees the child “to represent the reality of her/his own family”—here envisioned as a departure from the typical “‘nuclear’ family concept” and an embrace of interracial families and communities.

Installation view. Barbara Sprung (American) with the Women's Action Alliance (United States, 1971–1997), manufactured by Milton Bradley Company (Springfield, Massachusetts, 1860–1984), My Family Play People, 1974. Printed cardboard and plastic. Private collection. Photo by author.

Installation view. Barbara Sprung (American) with the Women’s Action Alliance (United States, 1971–1997), manufactured by Milton Bradley Company (Springfield, Massachusetts, 1860–1984), My Family Play People, 1974. Printed cardboard and plastic. Private collection. Photo by author.

The Guide to Non-Sexist Early Childhood Education also enthusiastically recommended the album Free to Be…You and Me, first released in 1972. This record was the brainchild of actress and activist Marlo Thomas and produced in collaboration with the Ms. Foundation. The album’s impressive roster of celebrity collaborators (including singer Diana Ross, poet Shel Silverstein, and comedian Mel Brooks) performed its many tracks, such as “Parents Are People,” Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron,” and “William’s Doll.” These playful songs and poems challenged restrictive social norms— particularly gender roles—and explored issues of family, friendship, individuality, and emotional well-being along the way. The record’s whimsical energy is further expressed in illustrations by Laurie Glick, which enliven it’s cover and lyrics booklet. The album was performed as a television special in 1974.

Page from Free to Be…You and Me lyrics book. Bea Feitler (Brazilian, 1938–1982), illustrations by Laurie Glick (American, active 1970s), manufactured by Arista Records (New York, founded 1974) Music by Marlo Thomas (American, b. 1937) and Stephen Lawrence (American, b. 1939), Free to Be... You and Me, 1972. Vinyl, paper, and printed cardboard. Private collection.

Page from Free to Be…You and Me lyrics book. Bea Feitler (Brazilian, 1938–1982), illustrations by Laurie Glick (American, active 1970s), manufactured by Arista Records (New York, founded 1974) Music by Marlo Thomas (American, b. 1937) and Stephen Lawrence (American, b. 1939), Free to Be… You and Me, 1972. Vinyl, paper, and printed cardboard. Private collection.

Together, these four designs demonstrate that play can facilitate understanding, whether the lesson is in the 123s of metrics, or the ABCs of social justice. You can explore these objects in the Museum’s 20th- and 21st- Century Design Galleries now through mid-August, 2018.

Hannah Pivo is Curatorial Assistant for Design. She works on acquisitions, gallery rotations, and exhibitions of 20th- and 21st-century ceramics, glass, textile, graphics, industrial design, and more.

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