WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL, I had a long, collapsible play tunnel. It was like a human-sized Slinky covered in swirling black-and-white-striped nylon. Crawling through the kaleidoscopic tube, I always had the feeling that a new world awaited on the other side. Sometimes my father would stand up with the play tunnel around his body and flail about, singing, “Martha Graham! Martha Graham!” I was three, with absolutely zero knowledge of the modern dancer he parodied. But I howled with laughter every time, thinking, This Martha Graham must be totally hilarious!
Design for kids is fantastic. Immersive, unexpected, bold. Bean bag chairs and star-spangled forts, candy-hued step stools and rocking horses, animal-shaped night lights and tables that bend and bop. And then ... you grow up. And everything gets a bit ... beige. Colors mute, edges sharpen, and surfaces harden into the decidedly restrained interiors of adult living. But who's to say restrained means elevated? Who defined style as something so serious?
In light of this month’s theme, Play, I take a departure from the all-white right angles of my apartment and embark on a tour through the best of playful design around the world. The first stop? A conversation with American design icon Kelly Wearstler. Since launching her firm in 1995, she’s become the queen of provocative and whimsical design — building a rule-breaking, risk-taking empire of color, pattern-mixing, and multisensory glamour. When we get on the phone, her voice is silky yet sharp, with the faintest of Carolina accents. I imagine her walking through the lacquered halls of her LA estate with a rotary phone dragging behind, dressed in one of the characteristically fabulous outfits she’d wear on a design show, all jewel tones and bold-shouldered jackets with high heels as thin as knives. In reality, her fit is probably function over form — her focus on the real and daily grind of being a powerhouse working mother with some of America’s most influential spaces under her belt, and the upholder of a vision that, for 26 years, has refused to blend in.
What does playful design mean to you? In what areas of your own unique aesthetic do you feel play is an influence?
Play crosses over into so many different types of design, whether it's fashion, architecture, interiors, furniture design. It’s spirited, vibrant, dynamic, energetic, colorful, and can come across in so many different ways: scale play, new materiality on a classic silhouette, a play on masculine and feminine, pattern play. I love mixing eras — looking at something like a baroque mirror and pairing it with some really cool contemporary emerging designer's chair, like a Chris Wolston. It’s about looking at things in new ways.
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From architecture to interiors to fine art — what do you think are some of the most influential instances of playful design through the ages?
Pierre Cardin — his use of color, his sculptural form, that incredible bubble house. Frank Gehry. I mean, how playful is that? That sophisticated material, wrapping these buildings in steel. Then there's Ettore Sottsass, another one of my favorites — his use of color and shape, experimental materials from the '80s. In terms of fashion, which is also a really big inspiration for me, Elsa Schiaparelli. All some of my personal design heroes.
From chubby furniture to wiggle design, it feels like there's been a kind of resurgence in playful design. Are these just historical trends reimagining themselves in natural cycles — or is there another reason these interpretations are coming to the forefront again?
Everything is cyclical in design. And because of Instagram and social media we're all seeing the same thing. So people see these past designs and they're inspired by them. Also, with the current state of the world, people want design that makes them feel good, things that are comfortable. The kind of chubby furniture, rounded forms — they’re much more inviting than something right-angled or more faceted. Then there’s a lot of experimentation, something that also happened in the '90s. Technology is a big factor on new kinds of fabrication and use of material. So it’s our current environment but also the impact of technology.
Why is allowing a certain amount of whimsy into our lives important?
It gives you energy, spirit. It could be a piece of art or a vase of flowers in your dining room. China in a great color that evokes a certain emotion. Interiors and home are outlets for all of us to be moved — and there are many different ways to showcase that.
How can the creative generations of today and tomorrow continue to craft adventurous and unexpected visions?
Look at technology, but also the craft of the hand. Don’t forget how things were made in the past. In our office, I make sure we're always sketching, bringing out the pen and the paper and drawing. Note how artists continue to evolve and look out for new designs. I also just encourage people to take risks. Don’t be afraid to experiment and do things that seem so far-fetched and bizarre, because beautiful things happen. It keeps me falling in love every day.
We’re featuring the works of designers Chris Wolston, Rotganzen, Sayar & Garibeh, and Seungjin Yang. What are your thoughts on the creations of these designers?
I love Chris Wolston's work. He took this chair and reinvented it. Genius use of material. We have a piece by him at the Santa Monica Proper [hotel]. And Rotganzen, with that dazzling disco ball, like sculpture art. I have one at home. Though I'm not having dance parties, it still sits at my entrance on my staircase, dripping over. When the light hits, it becomes this kaleidoscopic stairwell. And Yang, I have his stool in my home as well, the clear one. Because he’s so whimsical, we wanted to put it in a kid's room (but they’re a little expensive), so it's now in a room where people gather when we have company, as a great conversation piece — functional and a piece of art. What more can you ask for?
My next conversation is with Rotganzen, the Rotterdam design trio of Erik Schilp, Joeri Horstink, and Robin Stam. We do a Zoom, and in my remote work corner of the day (a traditional parlor in a friend’s beautiful, old Nantucket home), a giant oil portrait of a Regency-era gentleman in a winged armchair stares down from behind me. Mutton-chopped, cravatted, book in hand, his stern presence is hilariously imposing — an ironic reminder of the buttoned-up austerity shaping centuries of design. I name him Hubert in my head, and superimpose one of Rotganzen’s designs into the painting. The guy looks like he could use a bit of levity.
Taking inspiration from daily life and popular culture, Rotganzen’s “Quelle Fête” disco ball series has risen to the status of coveted collector’s item. “Everything that we do has a base in ordinary life. Then we make an abstraction of that, a twist, to create something new that comes across as playful. But there is often a deeper meaning.” The disco balls, anthropomorphized and crafted to melt into their surroundings, are a prime example of this. “It’s like when you go to the club, everybody has left and the disco ball sat at the bar and had a little too much to drink. I think it’s a good example of how the innocence of everyday objects can be given a deeper meaning by giving it a shape and a presence. It’s no longer Studio 54. The glory days are over. It’s all more complicated.”
Rotganzen’s “Quintessential” series, bar furniture crafted from different types of ladders meticulously layered with paint splatter over a two-week period, is another ode to past eras. The pieces come with a cryptic backstory detailing the life of a house painter named Jack Quin, who after 40 years decided he’d had enough. His neighbors don’t see him for weeks until a concerned party goes to check on him — only to find a completely empty house, like no one has ever lived there. Save for one thing: his ladder, splattered with paint from painting other people’s houses. A ladder marked with experience and now utterly without purpose. “It’s a wink to Pollock and that period of American heritage,” the Rotganzen team explains. “I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a lot of references to Pollock in the story. The place where he lived, where his brother lived, his wife’s name.”
Play for Rotganzen is a way to interface with nostalgia, it seems — a sweet, unassuming vessel for more complex and personal emotional resonance. Take their series, “Bouncy,” which “started with a memory and ended with a multifunctional object.” In bright shades of orange, yellow, and teal, “Bouncy” was modeled after the spring rockers of a playground, engineered to stand up straight as a stool or side table. The look is simple, almost elementary, which is how Rotganzen likes it. “Although our work takes a long time to develop, they never look it. Design that looks difficult? We’re not really interested in it.” This simplicity, to them, works best in juxtaposition with something. When imagining an ideal place for their pieces to live, LA’s Chateau Marmont and France’s Palace of Versaille come to mind. “A complete contrast makes the work more interesting,” they say.
I ask them about the importance of incorporating a level of the whimsical and imaginative into our spaces, and their answer is wry: “Life is just so difficult already as it is. Is it really necessary to emphasize that as a designer? Are you a better designer if you suffer publicly?” To this, I laugh. Hubert’s portrait stares.
For Chris Wolston, a Medellín-based designer, playfulness is a point of entry, an approachable way for people to understand material process: “People connect with that in a more meaningful way than when something is very formal.” Wolston’s terra-cotta furniture was inspired by the handmade brick factories of Colombia, where finger marks would often be left in the clay. “I began noticing around the city that there were these moments of the maker's hand or fingers left in these surfaces on the facades of the buildings.” He carried through this “flaw” across the entire surface of each piece in his early collection — a playful homage to the realness of how a thing is made.
We discuss the material culture in Colombia and its unique fluidity as compared to the U.S. “When experimenting with material, there's an openness and flexibility to how it’s applied, used, and the point of access.” This observation played a role in the development of his colorful metalwork. Stumbling upon an aluminum hot chocolate pitcher inside a Medellín dollar store, he was fascinated by the discrepancy in appearance and value. The piece seemed bespoke and one of a kind, yet cost a couple of dollars. So he tracked down the aluminum foundry and struck up a relationship for his own work. The color then came in through a factory specializing in anodizing, “a process where the metal gets electrified and dipped in acid to open its pores, then dipped in a pigment where the color gets absorbed — a technique developed by the military to strengthen aluminum components in aircraft.”
But Wolston’s most iconic design is perhaps the Nalgona Chair, a wicker chair series that feels more like a person than a chair. With butts, hands, and feet, Wolston wanted to create a welcoming embrace, a symbol for the way furniture can relate to the human body — an embrace desperately needed in a pandemic year without touch. “I think the playfulness of the chairs really brought happiness to people and acted as a form of relief. I was so grateful for that.”
South Korean designer Seungjin Yang’s work is a bit less grounded. In the literal sense. His entire “Blowing Series,” from chairs and lights to stools and benches, are shaped like balloons — which is what he actually starts with. Blowing up each balloon piece to specific sizes, he then coats them with several layers of epoxy resin and shapes them into furniture. The result is a glass-like surface, paradoxically made to sustain human weight. He takes pride in the seeming impossibility of it all: “I believe that it is important to create new forms of work that have not been seen before,” he says.
He cites experimentation as key to bringing these pieces to life, having gone through multiple iterations before finding a way to successfully capture the unstable medium into pieces that could not only be preserved, but lived in. “I enjoy the unexpectedness that comes from shifting an ordinary material into something with opposing qualities — showcasing the process of transforming soft and fragile balloons into a solid piece of furniture,” he explains.
Though deeply playful, there is a sense of considered proportion and a careful color scheme running through each piece, which Yang attributes to the subconscious influence of Korean culture. He calls out personal experiences and the artists around him as “a significant amount of my inspiration.” And when asked where he imagines his pieces living? The answer could almost be real: “I picture my work in the sky, floating through the air.”
My last conversation is with Sayar & Garibeh, a Beirut-based design studio made up of Stephanie Sayar and Charbel Garibeh. I’m struck by one design in particular, their Lochness coffee table, and ask them why they modeled this piece after folklore. “I'm fascinated by those stories where there are monsters and fictional characters, or UFOs or chupacabras, or something very weird,” Garibeh explains. “I don't believe those stories, but I want to.”
“We like the mysterious world more than the real world,” Sayar adds. “Maybe it's an escape. Maybe we prefer the other world.” I soon understand why. Almost a year ago, their studio exploded in the August 4, 2020, blast — with them inside. They were in the hospital for weeks, and lost everything. But instead of falling into despair, the opposite happened. The duo appreciated life more, treasured the good moments, grew stronger. “That's why we do the pieces that we do, to make people happy, because they need it. And we need it. Playful design became something we needed to escape this.”
They turned to unexpected mediums like foam, “to be free.” A material uncontrollable and unpredictable in nature, its spontaneity and the surprise results it yielded brought delightful calm to the designers. They also looked to Lebanon’s past, focusing instead on their culture’s rich history of craftsmanship and resourcefulness, rather than its painful present. Formerly using materials from abroad, the cost became unaffordable when the Lebanese economy crashed. So they looked within their own borders, crafting their Broom Bench in Lebanese stone; this local material had been overlooked, despite it being unique to the country. They also partnered with a Lebanese chemist to create a new medium for Lochness, a combination of epoxy resin, concrete, and silica particles, a one-of-a-kind mixture not available on the market.
“When we want to get inspired, sometimes we walk the streets here. Everything is destroyed but at the same time, all this chaos can inspire you to come up with the opposite.” When that doesn’t work, they’ll play a series of games to spark creativity: swapping sketches halfway through and trying to finish what the other has envisioned; one of them saying a word, and then the other having to sketch their interpretation; or perhaps Garibeh closes his eyes and says what he sees, while Sayar translates it to paper. “At the end he’ll open his eyes and I’ll ask, ‘Is this what you imagined?’ And he’ll go ‘No. But I like that.’”
Reflecting on the responses each designer gave, it’s interesting to note how play is not one particular style or look for any of them. Rather, it’s a vessel for connection, an entry point outside reality, where people can relate to something despite their differences. How ironic that something presenting as so seemingly lighthearted could, in fact, allow for the most vital thing of all: a way to understand one another.
I look back at Hubert’s steely-eyed portrait and wonder what his life must have been like, so unthinkably far from mine. I wonder what painful realities he wanted to escape, what the equivalent of his play tunnel might’ve been, or what his dreams were. I wonder how his father made him laugh when he was a child.
I give him a little wink. He winks back.
Header image credit: Quelle Fête Souvenir for Veuve Clicquot. Photo by Rotganzen.
Rotganzen images by Pim Top, Mathijs Labadie, Rotganzen (from left to right).
Chris Wolston images by David Sierra.
Seungjin Yang images by Ji Yohan, Ji Yohan, the Future Perfect (from left to right).
Sayar & Garibeh images by Carl Halal, Carl Halal, Mike Malajalian, Mike Malajalian (from left to right).
Sophie Mancini Writer
Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.