September 19, 2012  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Height of Achievement: Tom Luckey, In Memoriam

A Luckey Climber at Columbus Commons, Columbus, Indiana. Image © Luckey LLC

The name Luckey invites wordplay too tempting to avoid; in the case of Tom Luckey, a Yale-educated architect known for the kind of lofty play structures shown above, the children who ascend his Luckey Climbers could be called just that.

Luckey started designing for children in 1985. He also experimented with sculptural staircases, and toy and carousel design, but made a career of these trademark climbers, which have delighted young visitors to children’s museums and other public spaces across the United States (from Boston and Chicago to Houston and LA) and in Mexico City. The designs are exuberant, even miraculous, incorporating stable platforms suggestive of magic carpets, leaves, or other organic shapes that seem to float in space while encouraging unfettered ascension. With no predetermined path of exploration, smaller children are able to explore the lower levels while advanced amblers can pursue more elevated adventures. Netting surrounds the structures as a safety precaution, allowing parents to watch their offspring emulate mountain goats and also giving kids the satisfaction of a good view.

The success of Luckey Climbers struck us, in our years of research for the exhibition Century of the Child, as a refreshing anomaly. Risk aversion has become a constant refrain in the discourse around design for children and a significant factor in the growing homogeneity of playgrounds (especially in the United States) since the 1970s. The ethos of adventure-playground advocate Lady Allen of Hurtwood (“I think it’s better,” she said in 1965, “to risk a broken leg than a broken spirit”) has been overshadowed, as play activities—climbing especially—are constrained and equipment is modified or removed.

But children climb instinctively, and with simian prowess, and they seem more prepared than their gravity-bound elders to make mistakes. (In what’s called the Moro reflex, newborns automatically throw out their arms and legs when startled by a falling sensation, perhaps as a vestigial instinct of tree-dwelling ancestors). Luckey Climbers balance the thrill and the risks of this favorite play activity with a sense of purpose made even more extraordinary after Luckey himself became paralyzed below the shoulders after a fall in September 2005.

Just over one year ago we contacted Tom Luckey (and his eldest son, Spencer) to learn more about his work, and explore the possibility of a Luckey Climber for the exhibition. This was unfortunately too difficult to pursue, but even preliminary discussions were inspiring for us—especially as we came in completely unaware of Tom’s condition. When we learned of Tom’s recent passing, we were especially grateful that he had been part of our journey; the weight of exhibition planning is instantly lifted by encountering such exceptional artists.

View a selection of Luckey’s staircase and Luckey Climbers designs (all images © Luckey LLC):