Thursday, September 25, 2014

Modernist Playgrounds of My Youth: Update

Thanks to everyone who read my previous two post on the playground equipment designed by Creative Playthings in the 1950s and 60s.  A comment on the last post about the "Fantastic Village" pointed my in the direction of Blair Hills Park in Culver City, California.  The concrete play sculpture there is not the full Fantastic Village but definitely may be a modified or later version of it.  

Considering the fact that a Creative Playthings turtle stands right next to the "Swiss Cheese", I can be fairly confident in saying that the yellow piece is also by Creative Playthings.  It's so amazing that some of these old structures still exist.  If any other readers are aware any other structures like this that are still around (specifically whole or partial Fantastic Villages) send the info my way.  I'm not always able to respond right away but I do read the comments left by my readers.  Thanks so much.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Modernist Playgrounds of my Youth, Part 2

In my previous post (it’s been a while, I know) I started discussing the design of playground equipment of the past.  Specifically, I was thinking about the large concrete turtle that was a fixture in many playgrounds across the U.S. throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  Manufactured by a company called Creative Playthings, the turtle was just one of several playground elements I remember from my childhood.  All of these things, I discovered while researching this article, were made by the same company.

The playground I specifically reference here was the Hilery Park playground in South Buffalo, New York, but I suspect there were dozens, if not hundreds, of playgrounds across the country stocked with Creative Playthings items.  Since they were all made of concrete (seen as unsafe nowadays) many of these amazing mid-century designs have been torn down and replaced with presumably safer (but definitely blander) playground equipment.  Finding evidence of its existence is hard, and that’s probably most evident with the playground construction known as the Fantastic Village.

Before delving into the Fantastic Village, however, a short history of Creative Playthings will help to establish their artistic pedigree.  It was a company invested in art and design as much as childhood development.  (I must start by giving credit where credit is due.  Much of the info I was able to find on the company came from the article entitled “Creative Playthings: Educational Toys and Postwar American Culture” by Amy F. Ogata.  Read the original here).  The company was started by Frank and Theresa Caplan.  Frank Caplan was an educator who truly believed that toys could stimulate childhood development and imagination.  Creative Playthings creations were intentionally stark and non-specific.  This helped spark creativity in a child’s developing mind.  One of the company’s first mass-produced products were a set of simple hollow wooden blocks.  These could be stacked and arranged any way the child chose.  They were fort, dollhouse, and bookcase all in one.  Really, they could be anything the child wanted them to be.  They also epitomized the simple and elegant designs of the company.  Just maple boxes open on one end, they were simple constructions that could become complex in the mind of the child playing with them. 

Virginia Dortch Dorazio
Caplan later started working with Victor D’Amico, who was in charge of educational programming at the Museum of Modern Art.  This partnership eventually led to the creation of the Fantastic Village.  In 1953, Creative Playthings, MoMA, and Parent’s Magazine co-sponsored a competition to find designs that met the company’s standards of inventive design paired with childhood stimulation and exercise.  The winner was a 28 year old painter named Virginia Dortch Dorazio (sometimes written D’Orazio).  Her design consisted of concrete-walled rooms punctuated with holes of varying sizes that could be used as windows, doorways, or climbing grips.  The structures were held together with metal bars that could also be used for climbing.  This was the Fantastic Village.  After winning the competition, Dorazio’s design was put into full production by Creative Playthings and featured in their catalogue.  Below are some photos I was able to find of the design.

What’s interesting looking at these photos is that the configuration of the rooms is different in every photo.  Like Caplan’s maple boxes that could be arranged in many different combinations, it seems that the Fantastic Village had no set plan or scheme for the pieces.  I was unable to discover whether Creative Playthings sent multiple installation ideas with the set, or whether it was up to the purchaser to set it up how they chose.  Regardless, it perfectly fit the company’s ideas on open-ended play.  The Fantastic Village could be a playhouse, fortress, or castle.  Unfortunately, I was only able to find black and white photos of the piece, and the Fantastic Village was definitely colored.  I remember the concrete was yellow, blue, red, and green.  Also unfortunate was that all of the photos I could find seem to be promotional photos sent out by the company to promote the product.  I couldn’t find any pictures of a Fantastic Village in situ.  I was certainly not able to find any contemporary photos of one.  I have no idea of how many were sold.  That’s sad because it leads me to believe that every one of the Fantastic Villages sold in the 50s and 60s has by now been torn down.   It’s possible that they now exist only in the memories of children (now adults) who played on them many years ago. 

Of course, when I was a child I had no idea I was playing on a piece of cutting edge mid-century modern design endorsed by one of the most famous museums in the world.  I didn’t know the name “Fantastic Village” either.  We called it the “Swiss Cheese”.  Design concerns and child psychology and development didn’t interest us.  It was just fun.  Perhaps it also helped me become a more creative person.  As is turn out, I was being influenced by artists even before I truly know what art was. 

Next time, a new topic.  It may be something you've never heard of.