May 10, 2012

Charles and Ray Eames: Spinning Tops

An array of antique tops on a tabletop greets us at the opening of a short, seven minute, film, buoyant with life and color, with a charming score by Elmer Bernstein. The surprise for me is that it was made by Charles and Ray Eames in 1969. I did not know that the Eames made films, thinking of them as the great designers....

...of innovative furniture, such as these chairs. It wasn't until I watched the fascinating PBS documentary, Eames: The Architect and the Painter, that I learned how involved they were in designing exhibitions and in film, including a multi screen project for the IBM pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair. 

What most caught my attention in the documentary were snippets from a small film about a small toy, Tops, which you can see in its entirety here on Youtube. They made another sweet film about old toy trains, Toccata for Toy Trains (1957), which you can see here. The tops, of all different shapes and colors, spin merrily along. 

They are part of cultures around the world, a toy that seems to be part of a universal language.

We are shown many different ways of winding string around tops....

and different mechanisms for spinning them.

Then there are the games that are played with tops.

And childhood memories of the surprise in the box of Cracker Jacks. Tops color-and-shape-shift as they twirl, acting magically to stay aloft on their fine points. If we're lucky we can get them to spin for a long time, even hop across surfaces, until they wind down and finally collapse. They are such a simple toy that they will keep going and going, again and again. 

It may be that I loved this short film because of the two tops in my collection of old things. I've never tried to play with them, but I admire their swelling shapes and their worn colors. All the tops are beautiful little sculptures, kinetic or still.


  1. I've always loved tops and at one point was drawn to painting them--perhaps because they have that implicit promise of circular motion contained within their rounded forms. Yours are a lovely couple.

  2. Lisa and Hannah, I'm so glad that you both like tops too. I love Hannah's description of the "implicit promise of circular motion", a perfect description.

  3. You must see Powers of Ten made by the Eames studio.

    1. Richard, that film was also featured in the documentary, but I have to say that my heart was taken by the tops; the toys rather than the science, as marvelous as it was.

  4. Two of my favorite Eames projects:

    The firm's design of the installation of the Teco pottery show at the Chicago Historical Society (now, Chicago History Museum) in 1989. An understated and perfectly elegant design that avoided any hint of competition with the wonderful Teco forms for attention.

    The other is Charles' WWII leg splint, one of which I once owned, and now miss.

    1. That must have been a beautiful show; the pottery is gorgeous. And I loved the look of that splint in the film. It's sometimes hard to remember how innovative the Eames were.

  5. We also enjoyed this PBS documentary which showed all the different facets of their artistic lives, including the interesting house they built for themselves in Southern California. We'll try to see the house some day.

    Tom and Karen