Polybutadiene is a synthetic rubber used in most car tires. There’s very little that’s fun about it, all on its own. Still, polybutadiene is a useful material: flexible, strong, resilient. In 1964, a chemist named Norman Stingley was fiddling around with the material, mixing it with hydrated silica, zinc oxide, stearic acid, and some binding agents. He then heated the mix to many thousands of degrees, binding the materials together—a process known as vulcanization—and produced a small, hard sphere: a ball. The ball was very, very bouncy. When Stingley held it out at arm’s length and dropped it from shoulder height, it practically boinged right back into his hand.
Stingley wasn’t quite sure what to do with his creation. He showed the ball to his employer, the Bettis Rubber Company, but his bosses at Bettis weren’t sure either. And, besides, they found the ball had the unfortunate tendency to shatter if it was thrown or bounced too hard, which, inevitably, one ended up doing because—wow, this thing could really bounce.
Eventually, Stingley took the ball to Wham-O, the Southern California-based company already famous for the hula-hoop and frisbee. The folks at Wham-O knew exactly what to do. They fiddled with the rubber ball some more, upping the vulcanization temperature, strengthening it. The improved ball could now withstand being thrown at the ground with some force. They soon found that the ball could, when hurled in this fashion, bounce right over a three-story building, like Wonder Woman. The folks at Wham-O named Stingley’s rubber ball the Super Ball.
When it was released, in 1965, the Super Ball sold spectacularly: some 170,000 balls a day at its peak and six million by year’s end. Super Balls were a major fad. A force in the culture, even. The founder of the American Football League watched his kids playing with Super Balls and wrote to the league commissioner about their plans for a championship game. “I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon.” Which, obviously, it could not.
One of the Super Ball’s biggest fans was the designer and architect Charles Eames. Charles and his partner Ray—his wife, business partner, constant collaborator and co-creator—are two of the 20th century’s most important and influential designers. They designed furniture, mostly chairs, mostly out of artfully molded plywood and fiberglass. They also designed houses, showrooms, exhibits, and toys; they created patterns for fabrics and made films. Their work was well-known globally, winning them the prestigious Royal Gold Medal and the Industrial Designers Society of America’s Twenty Five Year award.
But beyond the already huge catalog of tangible household items the pair designed, their overriding philosophy and approach to the work has had the longest, strongest influence of all. The Eames’ were among the first designers to think of design as we do today, not as a luxury item but as an approach to all aspects of life. Two of the late 20th century’s most influential designers, Dieter Rams and Apple’s Jony Ive, have credited them as an influence. If a mass-produced affordable plywood chair could be the stuff of great design, so could anything, and everything.
If you are sitting inside practically anywhere at this moment I’d wager you see the Eames’s direct hand or indirect shadow cast somewhere within your line of sight: in a friendly curve of wood or a scooped chair; in the play of bent metal wire and aluminum of a table leg—or, at this very moment, for me, in a coat rack I’m staring at, bolted to the wall by my back door, with colorful wooden knobs that I just now realized are nearly exactly the size and shape of a Super Ball.
For years, Charles carried Super Balls around with him, giving them out on his travels, gifting them to all his grandchildren. Ray had a similar affection for chewing gum. She carried it with her everywhere, gave it out often. It was, she said, something “fun.” Ray also collected toy tops. Charles held a fascination with toy trains. They made two excellent short films, nearly silent save for their soundtracks by Elmer Bernstein, about each of these toys, imbuing the objects with a liveliness that feels, at times, almost mystical.
Though the Eames are best known for their furniture, they also designed exhibits. One of these exhibits, right around the same years as the Super Ball’s meteoric rise, was about Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India. At the exhibit’s opening, in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian, Charles disappeared into the men’s restroom for a suspiciously long time. He then emerged, grinning, and beckoned for his brother, Maurice, to follow. He wanted to show Maurice a trick he had been practicing. The bathroom stalls were high marble slats, close enough together that, when he bounced his Super Ball at just the right angle, it would ricochet up the stall’s walls. He sent the ball bouncing down, then up off the walls, then down off the ceiling, back down to the walls, back to him, and then, with a flick of his wrist, another bounce, and on and on the ball went caroming up and down the marble stall. He and Maurice eventually emerged from the restroom to rejoin the party, cackling in delight.
The play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith called these private play moments “paracosms”—the virtual worlds we create out of our serious, concentrated play. Both Charles and Ray had a fondness for the kind of toys we might call open systems, without rules, the kind of toys we might today call simple but really are the opposite. These are the toys that allow us to begin to remake the world or view it with fresh eyes. Of course, this is something we all do all the time—remake the world in our minds. Children are particularly adept at it, but adults, Sutton-Smith points out, fantasize as well. We just call it something other than play. Often, we call it daydreaming. “Children and adults may not really be so different in their use of fantasy play. The difference lies in the concreteness of symbols” Sutton-Smith writes in his book “Toys As Culture.”
Charles and Ray Eames knew this to be true, and knew that concrete symbols could be incredibly useful, especially to adults. A toy is a tool for imagining, and play is the act itself. Together, you might solve a problem, sure. Better still, through toys and play you might see the world not as it is but as it might one day be. Charles was fond of pointing out that electricity had been a source of amusement—a game—first, before it became much more serious: a source of power. “There is a certain relationship between playfulness and art, and there is a relationship between playfulness and science, too,” he once wrote. You needed play, and toys, to explore different intellectual levels of a problem. “Toys,” he was fond of saying, “are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games are preludes to serious ideas.” Toys were dangerous because they made new ideas, and new worlds, possible.
Perhaps the best example of their fascination with toys, games, and specifically the Super Ball, is the exhibit Mathematica, which is still on display half a century after it first opened. “I think of how my brother and sister and I went to the opening,” Lucia Dewey Atwood, director of the Eames Foundation and Charles and Ray’s granddaughter, told me on the phone.
She went on to describe one of the first experiences you encounter in the exhibit—the Probability Machine.
The Probability Machine is a floor-to-ceiling 200-peg grid. From the top center of the grid, a plastic ball drops. Then another. And another. And on and on for 15 minutes and 30,000 plastic balls, slightly larger than ping pong balls, nearly exactly the size of can you guess what? Yes. A Super Ball. The balls fall and ricochet off the pegs, seemingly at random, depositing some to the sides, a few to the far sides, and most in the middle. After a few minutes, a familiar bell curve begins to appear in the ball pile. Atwood described standing there with her brother and sister, delighting in the bouncing balls, then noticing the curve, and having a lightbulb moment about probability. “I remember thinking, ‘oh my gosh, it really works!’” It was a visceral experience, she said, “the active process of learning. And it made the information stick.”
Her grandparents were obsessed with the visceral experience, Atwood told me. This is what drove their work, which was impossible to separate from their life. They wanted to pass on their own visceral experiences—of delight, or insight, or both in the same moment—to as many people as possible. Which is why the films and the exhibits and the expansive nature of their work. Design, it turned out, could be applied to any and all aspects of life.
Atwood asked if I had been to Charles and Ray’s house yet. I hadn’t, I told her. “You should really go,” she said. The house had been their living laboratory: a work space, play space, life space. “Charles and Ray had this concept of the beauty of common materials. It was one of those things where, when you approach a body of exploration as though it were play, it frees your mind up to go in directions that you might not have really thought of.” The house and its surroundings, she said, were filled with spaces for these explorations, as well as their results. One morning this fall, I drove across Los Angeles to see it.
On the drive, as the freeway jogged northward along the Santa Monica Bay, I thought about how it is that someone goes about designing a life: the spaces for work, the spaces for play, the spaces for the stuff in between. How would each of these spaces look? How might they be different? Or similar? But as soon as I began wandering the grounds I realized just how wrongheaded I’d been to ask these questions in the first place.
The house is tucked away, set back from the street, among a eucalyptus grove, on a bluff above the Pacific Coast Highway. It is a two-story rectangular prism with a smaller, cube-shaped workshop behind. The inside remains exactly as it was on the day Ray died in 1988. The late architect Robert Venturi praised Charles and Ray for resurfacing “good old Victorian clutter” into modern design: old baskets and clay pots lined up beside plants and toy tops and dolls. There is far, far more stuff—more objects, more life—in the Eames house than in most mid-century design meccas.
But what interested me most was the area off the house, down a slope toward a flat clearing, before the bluff gave way and opened up to the Pacific. There in the flat clearing, Ray had found a perfect spot for a swing. The swing was one of just two objects on the grounds that docents explicitly told visitors not to touch. The other was a bell, hanging by the front door, with a rope dangling off it. I could see why the docents gave their warning. Both the bell and the swing called out to be pushed or pulled, to be played with. The swing in particular—even the slope of the bluff and the view in the distance seemed to pull you inexorably toward it. Near the swing was a little rocker of a toy elephant the pair had designed. Standing in that spot, I thought about Ray, swinging there, looking out at the sea, in quiet, playful contemplation that, I realized, was what Charles and Ray also called work.
Designing their lives to be filled with work and play didn’t mean designing discrete spaces for work and play. It didn’t mean anything like what I was thinking, which was a particularly modern way of thinking about play: that the act needed to be somehow useful, that even our leisure time needed to be filled with the work of self-improvement. This was the rhetoric of play Brian Sutton-Smith called “progress,” which is the kind of play that helps children become adults. But in a well designed—which is to say, well-lived—life, work and play could look like—no, they could be—the same thing.