Clocks, calculators, measuring tapes, and scales—tools for measurement and calculation have long been important for people to accomplish tasks at work, school, and home. A new display in the 20th- and 21st-Century Design Galleries considers the role designers played in shaping such devices in the twentieth century, with examples from the 1920s-1980s. On one hand, these objects demonstrate how many designers aimed to make tools that are simple to use and easy to read, such as the streamlined kitchen clock and timer that Isamu Noguchi designed for Measured Time, Inc. in the early 1930s. At the same time, these designs bring to light how measurement and calculation have been closely linked to the human body in the twentieth century, as this post explores.
In 1950, the Museum of Modern Art and New York-based Heifetz Manufacturing Company announced a design competition for floor and table lamps, offering cash prizes and the tantalizing promise that Heifetz would put at least three-quarters of the winning designs into production.  Ultimately, eight table lamps and two floor lamps were chosen for manufacture from over 600 entries.  These lamps were exhibited at MoMA from March 27–June 3, 1951 (alongside drawings, diagrams, photographs of the designs), published in Arts & Architecture magazine, and offered for sale across the United States at numerous stores, including Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. in Chicago and Macy’s in New York and San Francisco.  Now, two of these lamps are on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum as part of Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America (Sept 28, 2018-Jan 6, 2019).
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.
Architect and designer Arthur A. Carrara (American, 1914–1995) was born in Chicago and worked in locations across the world, from Buffalo, New York to the Philippines. But for Carrara, Wisconsin felt like home; in his 1964 retrospective catalog he fondly described Wisconsin as “my adopted state.” Over the course of his multifaceted career, Carrara worked repeatedly in Wisconsin—creating homes for private clients, designing exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Center, and eventually building a studio for himself in the state’s Kettle Moraine region.
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.
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.