As the great-granddaughter of Charles and Ray Eames, Jackie Cassel has a deep appreciation for the duo’s playful approach to design. “They considered toys to be just as serious as furniture and architecture,” she says. “They saw them as tools for problem solving, but also as beautiful, interesting objects.” Throughout the 1950s, the pair channeled this philosophy into a series of their own toy designs, many of which Cassel grew up playing with.
As Director of Retail for the Eames Office, Cassel is now leading the charge on reintroducing these products. The Little Toy, a construction set of eight wire frames and eight patterned panels, is the latest such revival. Upon opening up the box, kids will find a reprint of the toy’s original instruction manual offering ideas about a variety of possible creations, including houses, towers and hanging geometric sculptures. “It’s an approachable, accessible way to learn about architecture, form and structure,” says Cassel.
While the kit of parts maintains timeless appeal, it can also be understood as a reflection of its original era. As Cassel explains, the 1950s was a period when the Eames Office was starting to explore ideas about modular construction. “They were really interested in Bucky Fuller and all those concepts,” she says. This fascination first manifested in The Eames Toy, a building set that could be used to construct a variety of large playforts. Its successor, appropriately dubbed The Little Toy, contained scaled-down versions of similar components. “It allows kids to build these bright little pieces of architecture, but it also makes for a fun piece of decor to have around the home to study and enjoy,” says Cassel.
After reintroducing The Eames Toy in 2017, the Eames Office has now put its smaller companion product back into production as well. As with any reissue of a seven-decade-old design, the contemporary version involves some minor tweaks. That said, it wasn’t always clear which iteration of the toy to base the new design on. “There are a lot of different versions out there,” says Cassel. “And many of the pictures and marketing materials were done with prototypes, so the final products might not even be the same as what’s in the photos.”
Along with archival images and Charles and Ray’s original drawings, the Eames Office turned to eBay to acquire examples of past production models. “They’re pretty expensive,” Cassel admits. (No doubt, Eames collectors will be just as excited as kids to get their hands on this year’s revival.) From there, Cassel and her team set to work creating a thoughtful amalgamation of design history. “We know based on the drawings, for example, that it was their intention to have a panel with holes, but I have never seen an actual version with that panel,” she says. The new edition finally delivers on this promise. Drawing from multiple reference points, colours were compared and debated before finalizing the toy’s refreshed palette.
In another update, the reissue swaps out the MDF-like Tekwood used in the original for Eska board, a thick, recycled cardboard. Yet here, too, Cassel says there’s still a spirit of faithfulness to the original. “Every example of the toy I’ve seen used the Tekwood,” says Cassel. “But what’s interesting is that Ray described it as cardboard in some letters. So I think they were playing with that idea. And the new material makes for a better children’s product.”
In an age when digital gadgets dominate the toy box, Cassel finds the old-school tactility of the Little Toy refreshing. “I hope it inspires people to build things with their hands, and to experiment — and maybe fail a little,” she says. “It’s a little challenging at first — there is a learning curve. But I hope that people enjoy that.” As with developing a successful reissue, there’s a satisfaction to finally solving the puzzle.
Back in production for 2023, The Little Toy teaches young (and young-at-heart) design lovers about structure and form.