• Kick Off and Opening Party
  • Serious Play of Scientific Exploration
  • The Theory of Play
  • Playing Well with Others
  • High Impact Play
  • Icons of Play
  • Play from the Inside Out
  • The Play of Identity
15 Countries, 30 States, 41 Media Respresentatives =

Serious Play kicked off in a seriously playful way tonight. Even before Kermit the frog introduced us to our gracious hosts, Richard Koshalek (President, Art Center College of Design), Erica Clark (Senior Vice President of International Initiatives) and Chee Pearlman (Guest Program Director), the raw energy of the space was apparent. The Wind Tunnel was alive, radiating with all it had been home to, beginning as an actual test grounds for major aircraft to hosting the inaugural Design Conference in 2004. Now four years later, the Design Conference embraced its history. The seed for this year’s theme, Serious Play, was planted when, at the 2006 Conference, inventor genius Danny Hillis commented that he had just no idea what those delicious robots were doing, scurrying about stage; he was just playing.

See all the photos from Day 1 here...

As Chee explained, Danny Hillis’s talk inspired the conference theme, and that the concept of Serious Play in the energetic world of design is a topic of rich exploration. From the exuberant experiments of Charles and Ray Eames, who professed “toys are often the precursor to serious ideas,“ to Tibor Kalman, the master of rule-shattering play in graphic design, to the poetic play of polymath Ettore Sottsass, designer of the red Valentine typewriter created for poets, play and design have been deeply aligned. For three days, the connections between the two will be revealed.

Then came the jumpers! Double dutch, single dutch, a kind of jumping rope few of us had seen. We all felt tangled just looking.

Tim Brown, President and CEO of the multidisciplinary design firm IDEO, then engaged our understanding of the construct of playing and how we can learn the most from our shortest creators. Kids can inform our outlook on creativity by looking at exploration, building and role playing, as he explained, “forgetting the adult behaviors that are getting in the way our ideas.” As David Kelley founded the idea of IDEO based on friendship, Tim reminded us that it is this friendship that yields true play, allowing us to check our fear, embarrassment and defenses at the door. As FingerBlasters littered the stage, we rekindled youthful playtime spirit.

Tying these themes, sentiments and emotions together was the magnetic performance of kinetic artist Michael Moschen, giving us all insight into the requirements of serious play to design mystical, awe-inspiring and near physics defying creations.

If tonight’s kick off can be any indication, the next two days are sure to ignite, inspire, connect, tickle, and laugh our way to a clear understanding of the profound capabilities and synergies that only serious play makes possible. As attendee Alton Takeyusa remarked concisely, “it’s all about play, how could it not be fun?”

Target’s Opening Party

The only way to celebrate such a wonderful opening is to have a wonderful party! Thanks Target. Let the party begin!

See all the photos here...

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John Hockenberry / George Smoot / Charles Elachi

“I had a weird dream last night. There was this party and they had these drinks full of stars that kept sparkling. And I had a few of them and then, all of the sudden, there was this Nobel Prize Laureate and he was jump roping. Then I was jump roping!”

That was no dream Chee, Target’s Opening Night Party was hilariously playful and visually stunning!


Renowned news correspondent, author, and international journalist, John Hockenberry, returned for his third appearance as Master of Ceremonies for the Art Center Design Conference. After reminiscing of his 2006 experience with a block of Velveeta cheese, a play on the 2006 theme of Radical Craft, John showed a more ’serious’ investigation of this year’s theme with a homemade video of his children and their ’serious’ takes on the art of playing. On who should not be allowed to come to Serious Play, “anyone who’s too serious about playing,” one child exlaimed, because, “they’re going to make problems for the speakers by blurting out things like ‘that’s not the right way to play!’”

As the laughs abated, John observed the unique role of the Design Conference community, the zealotry not about crusading to save the world but rather the inner zealotry that concerns the inner compulsives we all have within us. “The inspiration that we find within ourselves doesn’t ultimately belong to us. Our ability to create and think beyond the present moment, to think of solutions to a problem; those impulses don’t belong to you, but rather they’re part of the collective human legacy. This conference is all about evangelizing this message: this is what we do on earth, this is how we thrive. Serious play is so fun that it’s serious.”

The first presentation began by exploring the serious play of exploring the outermost galaxies of our universe—


George Smoot, Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley and Nobel Prize Laureate, uses his mind, his understanding of cosmology and his ability to ask penetrating questions about those things we can’t see in order to comprehend the very earliest moments of the birth of the universe.

Professor Smoot chose to avoid angling the talk in an indulgently techie direction, instead opting to change our perspective by showing us the intricate designs found in nature. Playfully titled “CSI: Cosmic Scene Investigation” Smoot engaged our senses by examining the relics of creation, aiming to infer what happened at the Beginning and how to understand it.

He weaved through slide after slide of stunning visualizations to convey the sheer size of our ever expanding universe. “I wonder if there’s another Design Conference going on somewhere out there, with other intelligent beings thinking of what designs they might do, and trying to understand what’s going on outside their world?” he begged.

The universe is a perfect sphere, with evidence of the earliest moments of history on the ever expanding outer edge. He blew our minds with astounding numbers: “Hubble alone has to potential to see over 100 billion universes” and with a detailed 3D map of, 1 million universes scatter through the void. The design of the universe, talk about serious play.

The better we understand how the universe formed, the better we’ll understand it’s future - and what role we play in it. The soon to be launched Planck satellite will give us a massive resolution boost so we can really see the complicated patterns and analyze the nonlinear processes that exist out of dark matter. By focusing on irregularities and scaling it up, we can really get a picture of what’s going on, to - ironically - look back to “see how the beginning moments unfolded.”


Dr. Charles Elachi is the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Vice President of the California Institute of Technology. He is also the proud father of such projects as Casini, the Mars Rovers and Voyager.

“It’s a pleasure to come back down to earth and give a talk here.” Dr. Elachi explained the JPL environment, “it’s a toy store for scientists and engineers; the Disneyland for nerds; a playground of adults.” There’s currently 17 robotic ‘emissaries’ in space that JPL designed and now controls. JPL was born out of five imaginative, adventurous souls who liked to see, basically, which chemicals they could mix to make the biggest explosion. Look where others are not looking, Dr. Elachi heralded, “do not go where a path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Mars provides a great exploration destination, Dr. Elachi explained, “it’s somewhat similar to earth, it has polar caps, it even has weather. There’s great canyons on mars, it has volcanoes [dwarfing Mount Everest] and we recently caught a landslide.” While the rovers were originally only hoped to last one hundred days, four years later they’re still powering onwards, with their solar panels cleaned by the occasionaly passing dust devil. “It’s good to be smart but it’s great to be lucky,” Dr. Elachi added. The rovers journey on, diving into craters we wouldn’t dare drive into.

Dr. Elachi was clearly excited about JPL’s upcoming mission of the Phoenix rover, scheduled to touch down on Mars May 25. He perfectly recounted the hours, minutes and seconds until landing. The Seven Minutes of Terror explain the Phoenix’s autonomous landing, descending from 14,000 mph to just, yes they say just, 900 mph and then releasing itself into free fall equivalent to the height of two Empire State buildings, firing up its own jet stabilizers to hover itself down to the surface of the Red Planet.

Dr. Elachi went on to talk about the findings on the rings of Saturn, the Lord of the Rings, and the methane spewing geysers found its Titan satellite. While it has some similarities to our earth, like rivers, lakes and even rain, the sub-freezing temperatures indicate that that liquid is more likely similar to our gasoline. “It’d be a great place for a holiday,” he joked, “you could fill up your car just by dipping a tube in the lake. Just don’t light a match.”

“You guys won!” John honored Professor Smoot and Dr. Elachi, on creating space flight as something you can do without leaving the earth. Dr. Elachi concurred, “now you can use a combination of physical as well as robotic presence [to explore the solar system].” And when asked where he’d go on a 3-day space holiday, Professor Smoot suggested his keen interest in going to Titan—so long as there’s a hotel there.

The session broke, with peoples minds well and truly expanded.

During the break there was more fun with the Jumpers. Meantime, attendees built structures out of “Muscle Water” whose bottle shape, designed by Art Center alum Yves Behar, lent itself perfectly to constructing great structures once they finished the delicious nectar it contained:

Muscle Water

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Stuart Brown / Elizabeth Diller / Robert Lang

Thank you Eastman Innovation Lab for sponsoring our much needed Coffee (read: brain) break. Hockenberry now asks, “how can we theoretically understand play without destroying it?” Our speakers this session - a play psychologist, a reluctant architect, and an origami virtuoso - are primed to inform us just how.

Dr. Stuart Brown, Founder of the National Institute for Play, challenged us to look beyond our adult, social constructs to see the world at play that surrounds us. It’s got to be serious if the New York Times dedicates a Sunday Magazine cover story to play, right? Play is so strong that it can override the carnivorous instincts of a polar bear to frolic with the would-be-dinner husky. And so too does the lack of play, as Dr. Brown learned in studying the Texas Tower Murderer, leave humans dangerously vulnerable to tragedy. Brown illuminated the eruption of joy and elation that can come from a mother and child locking eyes, or the random, purposeless body play. “If you’re having a bad day try this, wiggle around and you’ll feel better. [But] if it’s purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it’s probably not play.” Play informs our social constructs. If you want to belong, you need social play, a by-product of the play scene. Rough and tumble play develops our social, cognitive, emotional and physical traits. Spectator play, ritual play, imaginative play, the list goes on.

Perhaps most stark was the experiment suppressing rats’ play time: if you place those rats in the presence of cat odor, at first both groups hide out, but the non-players never venture away, dying. Meanwhile the player rats will emerge to explore their environment, testing things out. “That says to me that play may be pretty important for our survival.” And yet you don’t hear anything like cancer or heart disease associated with play, but Dr. Brown sees it just as basic and key to survival long term.

“The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression,” asserted Dr. Brown. No humor, no flirtation, no games, no fantasy. “Try to imagine a culture or a life with play and the thing that is unique is that we are designed to play throughout our life time.” Dr. Brown’s class at the Stanford Design School investigates the state of play and its importance in creative thinking to explore play as its basis, to encourage play in the corporate world and to work in real life situations. He so encourages us not to engage in the work-play differential we are accustomed by setting aside time to play, but where life becomes infused with body, object, social, fantasy, transformational kinds of play and you’ll have a better and more empowered life for it.

Th reluctant architect, Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, demonstrated how we should embrace and incorporate our atmosphere, allowing it to inform our built environment. There’s something essential about architecture that is about play, beyond just keeping the rain out. One wonderfully quirky example of this play is Diller’s No No Smokers Project in Amsterdam, where smokers unite via dedicated columns of air and interconnectivity through the internet where smokers can share where are the best places to share a drag. The Blur Building can hardly be understood as a conventional building. “It’s not about space, closure or skin,” Diller points out, rather “it’s all about screwing around a little bit with your expectations of the dominance of vision and the ability to operate through your visual sense.” Diller also embraces atmosphere in the forthcoming project combining the essences of Venice - water from canals and espresso - to create the best, most atmospheric, cappuccino for the upcoming Biennale. And then Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art creates a wall of water to incorporate the site’s historic importance, editing Boston Harbor, “and you can just, atmospherically, get lost in the digital work you are in.”

The Highline Project is revitalizing a long abandoned track creeping through the west side of Manhattan. Diller’s vision welcomes the atmosphere, those astounding microclimates that are products of the tracks’ history as a channel of distribution for exotic goods. The public will traverse the natural clines of the tracks that will evolve and over time, attracting flora and fauna. The result will be more a living, breathing, growing organism than an actual man-made structure, the architects reveling in natural development over control.

Talk about surrendering control and then harnessing it back again, Dr. Robert Lang basically forced us to question our basic understanding of a most ordinary material: paper. Lang’s appreciation of the discipline of origami lead him to reinvent and revolutionize the practice.

Lang’s scientific background and keen insight into what origami was truly all about allowed him to boil an infinity of shapes, sizes and textures into mathematical algorithms, virtually blowing our minds with his snake of one thousand folds, minute medical devices and expansive space technology...all from a single sheet. As Frank Lloyd Wright said: art, design and excellence are born out constraints. Lang’s constraints are derived from the software program he created to allow any shape to be reduced to a crease pattern, a sort of map of the folds. And not just any folds, folds yielding scales on a fish or plates on a turtle.

Though most profound are the applications of origami to our most pressing contemporary problems. That includes the folds required to compact a solar panel in a satellite. But who would have thought that the same folds required to pack an airbag into a car are exactly the same framework used to build an insect. Or a medical stent device based in the same folds as our childhood delight of the water bomb. As he puts succinctly, “things that you pursue because they are fun turn out to have practical applications, it might even save a life, which is pretty cool.”

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Helen Hood Scheer / Irene Au / Philip Rosedale / Jamy Ian Swiss

After a refreshing lunch graciously hosted by Steelcase, Serious Play reconvened just as the sun broke over the cloudy skies of Pasadena.

Hockenberry opened by explaining the obsessive dichotomy of documentary film making: the obsession of the subject of the documentary, and the obsession of the filmmaker. We were treated to a ‘behind the obsession’ insight from Helen Hood Scheer, who made her directorial debut in the documentary Jump. Unlike the traditional competitive sports documentary, Jump tells the tale of young people across the world striving to make jump rope an Olympic sport, by collaborating, negotiating, standardizing the rules, judging standards and creating the competitive model for jumping rope.

The jumpers broke out to perform yet another, and even more, involved routine. When interviewed, they highlighted the importance of teamwork and their modular, dynamic roles that rotated throughout the routine. They also shed light on the highly competitive and intense world of professional rope jumpers, and their - er - relationships with their neighbors downstairs.

To conclude John asked cheekily, “have you ever thought about incorporating wheelchairs into your routine?” “Sure,” said one of the jumpers, “in fact I can tech you a few moves!” Training starts after the Conference.

After a humorous video from the Marx brothers, John introduced Irene Au, Director of User Experience at Google, responsible for the design and user research for Google’s software products worldwide. Fact is, the simple and clean user interface of Google’s homepage is one of the most celebrated and valuable destinations (not to mention property) on the web. A lesser known, yet important, fact, “a worker should never be more than 150 feet away from food” at Google.

Irene showed us some very nifty eye-tracking systems that Google employs to test usability and visual heat maps that display where their attention focuses. By combining this information with hugely detailed analytics (when and what people click), they turn decision making into a very scientific artform.

With 70% of its traffic coming from outside the US, Google’s international growth is massive and demands a measured response. The range of Google users across languages and cultures poses a real challenge for designers. “It’s easy to design for ourselves because we understand ourselves, but we don’t really understand other cultures and other markets as well.” This leads to a large amount of playful brainstorming, both locally in front of white boards covered with Post-It notes to distant and, often surprisingly rugged, research missions in the field.

Talk about another culture. Philip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Linden Labs, after converting his childhood bedroom door to a garage door, he yearned to build a virtual world where we could realize the out of this world ideas that are so difficult to execute in the real world. So when the internet came along, he seized the opportunity to “create the laws of physics.” What was born out that imagination - Second Life - is now a $30 million virtual world success that is ten times size of San Francisco, but as densely built up. “You have no idea what you’re going to find, it’s going to be so different than Earth - where anything is possible. . . . Virtual worlds allow us to recreate ourselves,” nearly a localized version of space exploration, Rosedale observed.

On the future of the web, Rosedale thinks it’s “almost certainly true that anything this evolves into is going to be bigger than the web itself.” These virtual worlds are going to be the most common ways that we use use the internet to be together and share information, Rosedale foresees. Second Life forgoes the utopian vision, “you need that level of freedom, [and] those top-down schemes [like utopias] are alienating. What’s more, grand schemes [of control] don’t scale well beyond the Mall of America.”

But Rosedale calls our attention that while Second Life is expansive, it’s young and we must be a little forgiving of its growing pains. “It’s closer to the Wild West than to Rome,” and its culture and identity is evolving. But progress is happening fast, like “really fast, we’ve estimated things are evolving at ten times the rate of what’s possible in the real world.” Fasten your seatbelts, he welcomingly cautions, change is coming.

Hockenberry observed that we’re on a threshold of changing our notions of what communication is. Slight of hand extraordinaire Jamy Ian Swiss enveloped the audience, astonishing our sense of time, place and communication. “The best surprises are brought about when there’s a little consideration on the part of the audience.” You don’t just reveal the trick too quickly, instead, challenge, engage, confuse and - finally - deeply satisfy your subject. Jamy concluded with a final trick - pulling the attendee’s folded card from inside his pocket watch, how did it get there!? “Nobody thought we’d work this hard to fool you - now that’s a method.”

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Art Center Faculty / Doug Campbell / John Maeda / “Menthos Guys”

Erica Clark, Senior Vice President of International Initiatives, opened the morning by uniting the crowd with a unified and refreshing yell. The Studios were a busy beehive of success, explained Erica. Folks silkscreened with a torrent of activity, the archetype press worked with antique types, airport security systems were redefined, “whatever you pick up here [be it crayons or markers],” one studio leader remarked, “it’s not for your children. It’s for you.”

Then something rather curious happened, Pecha Kucha happened. Pecha Kucha is the Japanese word for the sounds of conversation and was a form of presenting developed to allow designers to present their work in a concise way, a great way to welcome the diverse faculty of the Art Center, fifteen shown for ten seconds each: Nik Hafermaas, Dean of Communcation Design, explained communication guerrilla tactics, and elucidated the true value of an Art Center education: 256,000 burger flips. Karen Hofmann, Director of the Color, Materials and Trends Exploration Lab, discussed choosing meaningful palettes even before form is designed. Marty Smith, Chair of Product Design, combined unusual product functions like sticks battling stones. Anne Burdick, Chair of Graduate Media, peaked our interest of communication technologies and their affects on peoples’ lives. Mariana Amatullo, Director of Design Matters, explained how strategic partnerships, with the World Bank for example, can bring model health clinics where they are needed most. Stewart Reed on transportation design, and not just cars but imaging future alternatives, rather what would Bugati do? Ann Field, Chair of Illustration, explained drawing as the primal root of all ideas but reminded us that we all need humor, don’t we? David Mocarski, Chair of Environmental Design, on designing the complete spatial experience.

John Hockenberry welcomed our next speaker, the modern day Homer, Doug Campbell (our backstage reporter made it to the stage!), who shared with us his storytelling prowess. With custom made tuxedos, Doug and his comrade traveled the world, spreading bowtie love and charity work from England through Europe, Central Asia all the way to China. With just two fools, one adventure, and no idea, Doug shared with us his powerful and playful experiences in distant villages. “Stay playful friends!”

Leaping from the real world to the world of academia we welcomed John Maeda, a truly serious player and new President of the Rhode Island School of Design. Who knew it had all started in a tofu factory in Seattle. John relished in the early computer and its complete freedom to create, because you had to. Remember? John said, you’d plug your computer in and nothing would happen. There was no software, you had to build it yourself. And it was this simplicity / complexity duality that continues to inform his work. Fish constructed from iPod nanos, lights built from Bento boxes, beautiful installations with its centerpiece a PalmPilot.

Maeda’s next challenge, as the President of RISD is sure to bring the famed college into the new age of creativity. When asked if he was going to bring RISD into the future, as he is conceived of now as a technologist, he remarked, “I want to bring the future back to RISD!” When asked about the role of designers he “you don’t just mix A, B and C and get a stamp,” he gesticulated wildly, “let’s improve the designer. The best creators are people who are free, so how can we make more free time?” Backstage reporter, our Tuxedo traveler and RISD alum Doug observed, “more free time at RISD? That’ll be the day.” But in all seriousness, Maeda couldn’t be a bigger advocate of education, as he explained to Chee, we need to get it back into academia. The RISD community can look forward to a refreshing take by the technological, yet so human, marvel.

The next surprise guests were Fritz Grobe & Stephen Voltz, from the ‘Mentos+Diet Coke’ viral video YouTube fame, who showed their epic symphony of explosive experiments. Then they pulled some protective glasses out of their stark white lab coats and showed us their Patent-pending Mentos Delivery System, aka, a couple of PVC tubes which they attached to a warm bottle of diet Coke (note to self: warmth is critical for geyser success). They flipped a switch and stepped back. Coke shot up into the air as the ingredients interacted in nucleation wonderment.

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Joshua Klein / Eames Demetrios / Paula Scher

Once again, Jamy Ian Swiss tantalized our senses. We’re still in awe.

Joshua Klein, frog Principal Technologist, opened with words we can all live by: be careful what you say at cocktail parties. Klein has endeavored into a most fascinating journey of exploration into a creature most of us consider banal - crows - who turn out to have uncanny and unbelievable capacities. They can bend wire to hook unreachable food or drop stubborn nuts into flowing traffic so that the cars will break them open.

“Cultural adaptation,” Klein explained, is the crow’s unique ability to learn from one another, supplanting our ideas of traditional incremental Darwinian evolution. Though usually associated with humans, cultural adaptation turns out to be quite prevalent in crows, a crucial element of survival in an ever-changing world.

Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, recalled stories of the wonderful experiments of the design power couple. “What’s important,” Eames emphasized, “is that they never delegated understanding.” He shared with us photos of the beautiful forms that had never reached production. Charles explained to Eames how Eero Saarinenalways said he couldn’t wait to be an adult, “so he could really get to play.” Perhaps best symbolizing the extent of play incorporated into Charles and Ray’s lives was the honorary degree from Clown College. In retelling the story of the iconic Powers of Ten film, Eames illuminated for us the playful yet insightful relevance of the project, how looking at things from different angles can promote inspiration and fresh ideas.

Chee returned to the stage to turn the tables on our beloved Master of Ceremonies. As the son of the first Design Director at Steelcase, Hockenberry admitted to “know a lot about the psychology of designers” though confessed that he can’t draw. With an education in Baroque art and music, which surely prepared him for reporting from Kosovo, John’s career has spanned nearly all media. John introduced us to his newest project, The Takeaway, a new drive time radio show based out of New York City on public radio. The challenges of creating a successful new radio program in this day and age, where everyone carries in their pocket the broadcasting power of televisions from the 1980s, can best be summed up by John’s inability to communicate to students at the MIT Media Lab the idea of a radio show. He broke through, though, when explained, “it’s like a podcast that uploads into the air.” Work you magic, it’s the coolest, he reminded us.

The magic of the word, Hockenberry transitioned, was only the tip of the iceberg of our next speaker, Paula Scher, lauded as one of Pentagram’s most fearless graphic designers. With raw energy and brutal honesty, Paula recounted her experiences of serious play and how their transitions into solemnity indicated it was time to find the next challenge. It was only with this fearless, ignorant seriousness that the next level of growth could be reached.

Paula’s thirty year career began with a wonderful job designing record covers and a deep hatred for the typeface Helvetica, “the most clean, fascist and oppressive font out there.” Four key moments of seriousness were clear: (1) the early rejection of Helvetica and the indulgence of mixing typefaces from Victorian to Art Nouveau, which resulted in critical praise and the label of Post-Modernist. With such an official seal, Paula knew it was time to move on; (2) the wonderful growth of the identity of the Public Theatre, which rejected contemporary theatre identity and found a uniquely loud voice that Paula embraced down to every, even minute, Public Theatre visual representation; (3) melding typeface with architecture and expressing words in a literary and artistic way across our most imposing structures such as the Bloomberg Headquarters to the more playful Performing Arts School in Newark, NJ, where Paula employed painters to install her great visual types; (4) a rather peculiar commission to design a logo for a neighborhood, of all things, in Pittsburgh. Instead, Paula observed the iconic underpasses running through the city, turning them into a sort of logo in and of themselves.

Throughout, Paula reminded us that while the steps of growth always move onward, their height will diminish because there will be less to discover and less to learn. These solemn crescents are terrifying realizations, because that’s when you have to go back and find the next thing you can invent, to be ignorant with, to be a fool with, to fail with, “because that’s how you grow and that’s how that matters.”

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Fishtank Ensemble / David Macaulay / Petra Blaisse / Michael Curry

After a truly delicious lunch hosted by Bernhardt Design, Serious Play resumed and Fishtank Ensemble took to the stage, armed with an eclectic mix of noise making apparatus: violin, cello, guitar...accordion...household saw...all mixing with ethereal female vocals. Then, on a take of a Mozart classic, a ukulele was debuted. The performance was capped off with lead singer Ursula’s powerhouse vocal talent. Silence eventually returned after massive applause and whistles erupted from the audience.

“Our next guest has conveyed the power of architecture to more people than perhaps any actual architect,” John professed. Architecture is composed of so many systems encounter every day. Enter illustrator/author/inner workings guru: David Macaulay. His forthcoming book took six years to make, focusing on the working of the body, and we’re not talking about the Magic School Bus sort. He showed us the earliest sketches, he realizd that trying to figure out the important questions required starting with the smallest cells. Not stopping there, he sojourned to molecules, all the way to atoms. “It was a daunting task to go back [and] to gain a deeper understanding of the body.”

Macaulay’s wonderful color-pencil illustrations strike playful balance between the bodies functional complexity while maintaining visual clarity; a crucial part of being able to teach others. Some of the intricate biological drawings seem almost like part of some magical, Seussian world - fleshed out. Others drawings explain complex chemical processes by means of clean, yet fun, flow charts. “I was struck with the simplicity [of the moving body], like just shifting material across a membrane by altering the internal/external balance, only slightly.”

On our journey through the nervous system, arteries and veins, to the skeleton joint by joint, Macaulay used simple metaphors, like factories and rivers, to create visualizations of our organs and bodily functions (jeer). It’s inspiring to see how clearly Macaulay is able communicate massively complex systems. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Macaulay explained without hesitation, “I was looking for a way to make things understandable and engaging. If you’re not included in the process I don’t think you’re going to learn much.” Macaulay’s techniques can be adapted to other arenas, giving us the chance to understand more of the world’s intricacy.

Blurring the distinction between architecture and landscape, Dutch designer and next presenter Petra Blaisse challenges conventional notions of environments, seeing exterior and interior space as continuous. “I have a confession to make, all my fonts on my slides are in Helvetica.” (uh-oh Paula). Blaisse draws on inspiration from her time as an assistant curating, learning about the effects of lighting on textiles and its influence on the objects and artwork the light highlights. After cramping herself in her home studio, crawling over model, Blaisse went on a high speed run of a large array of the diverse projects that her ‘cross-cultural’ team at Inside/Outside work on: parks, interiors, exteriors, facades, furniture, and more, spread through all corners of the globe.

Curtains - Blaisse’s eternal foil - can not only add function and aesthetic to a space but also create their own spaces. She showed us examples of strikingly original curtains created for the Hackney Theatre in London, pleats of plush red velvet sewn together with fresh yellow yarn into accordion patterns, giving a rich texture to the vibrant stage curtain. She didn’t quite make it through her 300 slides but the effort was valiant.

Michael Curry, one of the world’s leading production designers, is a master of puppetry and kinetic theatrical design. With no training in puppetry, Curry employs incredible realistic body and face movement in his puppets. He works with a team that seems to have a surreal amount of fun brainstorming on how to get lifeless mechanisms to emulate emotions and stimulate the audience. His work on the puppets of the Lion King is a perfect example of his talent of breathing life into his creations. “In theater if you don’t play you get no where.”Curry enjoys live theater more than anything else. With so many mediums of how to deploy your work, he finds live experiences the most exciting, and thinks that others believe this too, proud to say theater sales are rising where others are not as fortunate.

Curry constantly references living things, so much of his time is spent on character design. He also employs the designs of spaces and environments to further enhance the effect of his productions. Curry preaches the importance of bringing this ‘hands-on’ approach to his current work, and encourages his entire team to incorporate play into their processes in his studio, “a playground of tools and machinery,” where welders work along side seamstresses and sculptures work next to painters. This cross-pollination can take much credit for the studio’s successes.

After sporting a giant pterodactyl outfit for thirteen hours one night, business cards spread to a top level producer of the Siegfried and Roy show. This was Curry’s entry into the world of ‘theater’ a word that rolls off his tongue with a fluid eloquence. On fluidity, he recounts that it is the dancer he uses who best understand the music, to cast a graceful shadow behind the puppeteers. Curry demonstrated how even a simple static mask can emit such senses as breathing and listening, with only the slightest twist of the wrist (above). “Kinetics is the fourth degree of sculpture.” He appreciates how constraints can inform creativity, “boundaries can offer often more possibilities than complete freedom.” On beginning the creative process with instinct, rather than research, we can all identify, as attendee Rainer Zierer agreed, “After all, the word ‘inspiration’ comes from the two words ‘in’ and ’spirit,’ so best to start with your own spirit before going elsewhere.”

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Bruce McCall / Aimee Mullins / John Oliver

“His voice can be heard above the noise, please welcome Bruce McCall!” As a self-taught polymath and current humorist for The New Yorker, McCall indulges in nonsense. For example, a Scottish castle where people are playing golf indoors with the goal to bang the golf balls off the armor. McCall’s work is so personal, so strange that he’s invented his own lexicon:

Retrofuturism: looking back to see how yesterday will view tomorrow, as they are always optimistically wrong

Technoarchaeology: digging back and finding past miracles that never happened

Faux-nostalgia: the ickingly sentimental yearning for times that never happened

Hyperobloic overkill: taking exaggeration to the ultimate limit just for the fun of it

Urban absurdism: what The New Yorker is really all about; I make life in New York look weirder than it is.

Perhaps ironically, authenticity is a major part of McCall’s seriousness. His Ascent of Man, the only three page cover of The New Yorker, traces the evolution and history of man — ending in an awful escalator accident. Look forward to McCall’s upcoming children’s book, available at fine street tables near you.

Our next speaker had a quality of fashion that Hockenberry could only begin to imitate: Aimee Mullins.

“Maybe I’m a real life avatar? I kind of do that by changing legs, like disability as a gateway to potential. Yes, I’m a girl with a dozen pairs of limbs, so you can imagine the kinds of reactions I get from people who meet me. The experiences must be so very different. We get uncomfortable when we’re unsure about our common grounds, the glaring differences, and people tend to pull back from that. We have all been that proverbial odd man out, the person where some unique factor made us feel separate from the group, which is why we first learn to mask our differences. The idea of being different [is often viewed] as a negative, or as a challenge we must overcome. But - in this crowd - we know it’s inherently powerful. Diversity leads to diversity of ideas and problem solving, collaboration to help us to connect. It’s actually in each other’s differences that we see ourselves. We’re more alike than we are different. For me, I wake up every morning and strap on prosthetic legs – like putting on glasses before you can see. The idea of prosthetic is everywhere right now. The lines are being blurred between able bodied or disabled. Arnold Palmer comes out with a titanium hip, Tiger Woods with two lasik surgeries. And Pamela Anderson, [well] she has more prosthetic in her body than mine, and no one calls her disabled.

“I was amputated at the age of one, I learned to walk and tie my shoes at a much younger age than most. I learned at a young age that I was going to be the person who changed my identity, [the doctors] were wrong all the time. It was always my heart and my spirit and not theirs. [One reason was] the internal. I spent a lot of time in the hospital as a kid and when you’re stuck in a hospital bed, you develop a great imagination and I saw myself as almost super-able, flying off in the pyramids or with the knights of the round table. [And the second reason is] the external. I come from a huge family. Getting dirty, playing musical instruments and being well rounded, I was expected to all the things other kids did.

“I became unique psychologically, realizing that being different had its benefits. I learned what I could do with those wooden legs, I realized I could turn my feet around. Once I got a music teacher to faint. I had these white waterproof swimming legs, like milk jug white, with the Caucasian peach rubber feet, with no toes (they broke off within 2 days). My father was just horrified [at their appearance]. We found out at the community pool that [the legs] were actually buoyant, and I’d come up feet first after diving off the diving board. I was the white flash trying to get to the ocean. “What was that mass of a thing?” [people must have thought]. But I learned not to overlook the benefits of what happens when you go through public humiliation. I once got swept out in an under toe, and I gave out. So I took the legs off and stuck them under each arm until some poor lifeguard found me. But that saved my life. I raced skiing in high school (I clearly have this obsession with speed). I don’t have ankles, and you don’t have ankles when you’re skiing. But my feet weren’t freezing. I could stay out all day long, racking up wind.

“I can be as tall as I want to be. Today I am 6’ 1,” I’m normally 5’ 8”. Why be restrained by genetic code when genetic code didn’t work for you? So what does this mean, choosing your own identity? As Americans, we’re raised with being special and unique, but how many people live their life according to that idea? If we already start off as seeing ourselves as different, to see it rather as a foundation of strength and a jumping off point for deciding who you are and who you want to be. Technology is rapidly affecting the landscape of identity. This idea of disability is so interesting because a lot of technological development has come from outside the realm of the medical world – wax museum people, Nasa, engineers. Working with people who don’t view the negative space as need for replacement, but as a blank slate, completely alters this idea of disability. Everyone is disabled in some way. But when viewed as a limitation, it’s like a yolk, [and] that’s something I’ve always refused to accept. We’re no more our hardships than we are our successes. We’re what we become from facing those hardships and living through those successes.

“I often get questions of bravery, [but] I do not have any special powers. I am equipped with the same magical powers that you are, and it’s your thoughts. At some point you have to recognize the amazing engine that is the way you think. Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right. I’ve met so many more people who are so much more disabled in their heads than I ever was by having to put prosthetics on. I think you should set wild and improbable goals.

“Wild and improbable goals. You have to see your potential as an absolute positive. It’s rejecting the practical and pragmatic and embracing the fantastical. This has to do with putting you ego aside, start with what you want. Holding onto childlike thinking was of utmost importance to me. I knew from a young age that I, and I alone, knew what the potential and limitations were and that they’re [ever] changing. And that real trust in myself, ignorance and arrogance about my own prognosis from the medical community, profoundly impacted me as that artifice of identity. The idea of never stop thinking like a challenge. You have to practice your curiosity like it’s a sport. Curiosity, imagination and trust in yourself – childlike qualities that are enormous. Children are open to all the possibilities, they don’t have preconceived ideas of what is and what isn’t possible.

(Photo © Matthew Barney; Gladstone Gallery)

“Most amputees are missing one thing and their goal is symmetry, but not for me. If I didn’t have to have human legs, why aren’t we looking at [others kinds of legs]. So these [running] legs were modeled after the hind legs of a cheetah, which ended up revolutionizing the model. I had a display like this [one here] at the Boston Children’s Museum. I said ‘look, I want to be able to jump over a house, what kind of legs would you build me?’ [And without hesitation the children ran off with ideas:] Go-Go-Gadget [legs], frog [legs], [but] why wouldn’t you want to fly too? Amazing. Here I am already limiting the options in my head and I had to be checked by a six year old. You can’t be open to the world and opportunities if you stay in a little box.

“I remember telling Alexander McQueen, ‘why can’t I have glass legs?’ He said I want to make you wooden ones, all hand carved, modeled after a sixteenth century boot. I later opened his runway show [much to the jealousy and chagrin of Naomi Campbell]. There’s nothing here you’re not seeing. These prosthetics are really part of my body, imbued with my soul.”

On his passport, John Oliver’s occupation is listed as “comedian,” and as he points out, “passports never lie.” As a finale to Serious Play, we were treated to a hilarious tirade from Oliver. He moved from democracy to red cabbage, from politics to ‘voting while drunk.’ From Armageddon to Colorado, which claims to be the least obese state. “Is that something to be proud of? It’s like a Klansman claiming to not be quite as racist as the others at the rally.”

Oliver also got into the dynamic and changing roles of the world’s super powers. “I’ll be speaking to you with a British accent, you’ll get used to things sounding like they have more authority. It’s not easy being British,” he recounts, “it’s impossible for me to go into any museum without feeling guilty after five minutes, ‘one day all this shame will be yours my American friends.’ And sure enough, fifty years later, China will be waiting with a baton in their hand ready to run into Armageddon.”

[The Brits] destroyed the world with a gentleman’s swagger. “Oh, was that your infrastructure, sorry about that. I’m embarrassed, I can only imagine how you feel! Hmmm, well we’ve got some great jobs for you four thousand miles away.” Throughout the hilarity, Oliver drove home the key point: “everyone’s first moment of civil disobedience comes from when you look at your parents in the eyes and say ‘I’m not eating that,’” as he raised his hand with a radical fist. “‘That’s going nowhere near my little face.’ [And so] when you think like a child, problems get smaller. We never got served red cabbage again. We can do great things when we think like a child.”

As an exhausted Hockenberry then directed (who wouldn’t be exhausted by all this play?), “Martini’s are being mixed in the Google/MediaTemple Tent.” On that note, it’s time for these bloggers to wrap it up and raise the most dirty martini they can find.

Stay playful friends!

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