Art

From Swiss Cheese to DNA, the Inventions of a Seminal Playground Designer

The Art of Play explores the career of Jim Miller-Melburg, who holds a place — albeit an often nameless one — in our childhood memories.

One of Jim Miller-Melburg’s iconic turtle play sculptures (image courtesy Scott Hocking)

DETROIT — Hearken back, if you will, to your childhood playground. In all likelihood — if this was any time after the 1950s and before the 2000s — this was an environment that included classic pipe-frame monkey bars, splinter-inducing tanbark, swings that might possibly perform a complete 360 rotation around the top bar (the limit constantly being pushed by that one kid, usually named Dustin), and perhaps a friendly cement turtle, porpoise, or camel holding court on the grass or in the sandbox.

Abandoned playscapes of Jim Miller-Melburg, from the Detroit Metro area (image courtesy Scott Hocking)

Some of these animal friends, and other abstract forms, including the “Swiss cheese” climbing structure, the twirling helix often dubbed “DNA” (but intended as a tree form), the “Eagle’s Nest,” and many other omnipresent fixtures of the midcentury playground are not, as many imagine, the product of nameless mass production, but the work of a Michigan-based fine artist and self-made seminal playground designer, Jim Miller-Melberg. A two-part exhibition, The Art of Play, mounted by Lawrence Technological University’s Center for Design + Technology, explores the process and the fine art career of this artist, who holds a place — albeit an often nameless one — in our childhood memories.

A “Swiss cheese” style climbing strucrure (image courtesy Scott Hocking)
Archival image of artist and playscape designer Jim Miller-Melburg, at work on one of his creations in 1970 (image courtesy the artist and Lawrence Technological University)

“The midcentury idea was that good design made for better life,” said Deirdre Hennebury, chair and exhibition committee leader of Lawrence Technological University’s College of Architecture and Design, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “So, children should have good playgrounds, because the implicit idea was that if we’re surrounded by beautiful things that work well, we’re all going to live better.” Though his playscapes are perhaps the most widely recognized aspect of Miller-Melburg’s career, he is an accomplished fine artist with a devoted following, particularly in Michigan, and continues his art practice even now, in his 80s, from his home studio in Bloomfield Hills.

Jim Miller-Melberg bronze statue, “Chance Connections” (2003) (image courtesy the artist and Lawrence Technological University)

“It was clear, when we went to see Jim’s home and studio, that not only did I want to do an exhibition, but we absolutely needed to get some of this material on campus in Southfield,” said Hennebury. The show in Southfield features process sketches and cardboard studies, while the Detroit campus exhibition displays a number of Miller-Melberg’s fine art bronze sculptures and dense plaster relief wall hangings. These fine art pieces are atmospherically quite different from the playground works, but retain a connection with their interest in flowing lines, nature themes, and playful colors, even in the shifted context of the gallery environment.

Miller-Melburg developed technical and fabrication skills while working as a pattern maker for automotive components at his father’s business, before studying at a number of local colleges, including Wayne State University, University of Michigan, and Cranbrook. He never completed a degree, but while traveling in France, he met and had influential experiences with sculptors, which sharpened his focus on sculpture art.

Materials from Jim Miller-Melberg’s archives, showing the catalogue and specs from his playscape company, Forms, Inc. (image by the author for Hyperallergic)
Detroit-based artist Scott Hocking, who is on a quest to document and raise visibility about the work of Jim Miller-Melburg (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

The exhibition is supplemented by a slideshow featuring hundreds of images captured by Detroit-based artist Scott Hocking, who has obsessively catalogued the Miller-Melberg creations he’s encountered on his meandering forays through the greater Metro Detroit area.

“Like most people who grew up in Metro Detroit, I played on these as a kid, and I don’t think a lot of people know that it’s an individual who designed all of them,” said Hocking, as he stunted for the camera on a Miller-Melberg porpoise preserved in a pocket park in Midtown Detroit. “I started to notice them being torn down and replaced by safer playground equipment, so they were disappearing — I felt that more people needed to know about Jim Miller-Melberg, and about midcentury playground design before these things vanish.”

One of Jim Miller-Melburg’s “Tree” designs, captured by artist Scott Hocking (image courtesy Scott Hocking)

Hocking’s documentary efforts fill the one discernible void in the Lawrence Tech exhibitions: the lack of any of the playscape works, which proved prohibitively complicated to transport and install for the show. But in spite of Hocking’s fears that Miller-Melburg’s works are vanishing, those feeling the need to revisit some of these essential creations might need look no further than their nearest playground — from coast to coast, it is surprising and encouraging to discover these little midcentury marvels hiding in plain sight, reminding us that design is at work and play all around us.

Jim Miller-Melburg: The Art of Play continues at the Lawrence Technological University’s Center for Design + Technology (4219 Woodward Avenue, Detroit) through October 13.

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