20th and 21st Century Design Art Behind the Scenes Curatorial Education Events Exhibitions

The House of Cards Project

In the early 1950s, designers Charles and Ray Eames painstakingly arranged penny cars, pencils, pills, and papers to photograph for their House of Cards construction set.

UWM-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts students (left to right) Anna Emerson, Paul Manley, and Jessica Schubkegel installing the House of Cards spiral. Photo by Ray Chi.

In the early 1950s, designers Charles and Ray Eames painstakingly arranged penny cars, pencils, pills, and papers to photograph for their House of Cards construction set. They probably never imagined that decades later, thousands of children and adults in the Milwaukee region would meticulously decorate their own House of Cards, let alone that these cards would be installed together in a towering spiral at the Milwaukee Art Museum in conjunction with the exhibition Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America.

Small group painting at a table
MAM ArtXpress teen program participants decorating cards with seniors at St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care. Left to right: Carrie Gray, Rosalie Dupree, Taylor Anderson, Beverly Laabs, and Thaddeo Smith). Photo: Shannon Molter.

The Eameses were a husband-and-wife team who worked widely in furniture design, architecture, filmmaking, and graphics. They are considered among the most influential of midcentury American designers, and known for embracing play and experimentation in their work. In 1952, they created the House of Cards toy, an eye-catching, easy-to-assemble construction set geared towards children and adults.

Publicity photo for House of Cards, 1952. © Eames Office LLC (

Original mock-ups and prototypes for the House of Cards are on view in Serious Play.  Inspired by these objects, as well as by a 2012 project at the ArtPrize festival in Grand Rapids Michigan, MAM began planning its own House of Cards initiative. In the spring and summer of 2018, the museum distributed blank House of Cards sets to dozens of groups across the region, including schools, senior centers, community groups, businesses, and professional associations. Participants were invited to express themselves by painting, drawing, collaging, and otherwise making their mark on the cards.

Eventually, the cards made their way back to MAM, where Milwaukee-based artist Ray Chi assembled them (with the help of UWM Peck School of the Arts students Anna Emerson, Paul Manley, and Jessica Schubkegel) into two installations that will remain on view until early January 2019. One is a towering spiral of cards that rises from the musuem’s lower level parking garage entrance. It can be viewed as visitors make their way up the stairs from the garage, as well as by peering into the oculus in Windhover Hall.

A second installation is located in the museum’s East End, and is comprised of numerous smaller structures that form a sculpture park, of sorts. This portion of the project will continue to evolve over the course of the Serious Play exhibition, as we invite visitors to join Ray for monthly Community Build Days. At the first of these hands-on events, participants built structures featuring passageways and hideaways that visitors are now welcome to explore. You can also contribute to the installation by decorating a card in MAM’s Kohl’s Art Generation Open Studio, any day the museum is open, between 10 am and 4 pm (7pm on Thursdays) throughout the course of the exhibition. House of Cards decorating will also be a featured activity at the upcoming event, Kohl’s Art Generation Family Sundays: The Joys of Toys on Sunday, December 2.

As a whole, the House of Cards Project has aimed to celebrate connection, collaboration, and creativity in the greater Milwaukee community. We wish to thank everyone who contributed to making this project a reality, including each and every community member who participated in decorating a card.

This project was generously sponsored by Herman Miller Cares.

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

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