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Run, Jump, Explore

Run, Jump, Explore

The MacAdams’ vibrant crocheted play structures spread joy – and encourage risk-taking.

Run, Jump, Explore

The MacAdams’ vibrant crocheted play structures spread joy – and encourage risk-taking.
June/July 2017 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Fiber
Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam Rainbow Nest

Rainbow Nest, 2000: This structure at the Takino Suzuran Hillside national park in Hokkaido, Japan, is an example of the MacAdams’ AirPocket designs, which provide several levels and portals for kids to explore. Inflated doughnuts and swinging bulbs add to the fun.

Masaki Koizumi

Click on a video about Rainbow Nest and the first thing you notice is the screaming. Not the terrified kind – it’s the delighted squeals of children playing with complete abandon. A boy climbs the side of a brightly colored net, grips it, then races back across its length and up the other side before flinging himself wildly into the mesh at its edge.

Below, two girls stack tire-shaped foam cushions covered in colorful crocheted fabric and climb into them, before one of them launches herself through a small opening into the net above her.

The play structure, installed at Takino Suzuran Hillside national park in Hokkaido, Japan, was designed by textile artist Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam and her husband, Charles, and assembled from hundreds of pounds of braided nylon cord, all hand-crocheted by Toshiko.

Since 1990, the MacAdams have been designing and building handmade play structures out of nylon cord in Bridgetown, Nova Scotia (population: just under 1,000). It’s work that crosses boundaries, which Charles says has drawn attention from the worlds of “parks, early childhood development, psychology, interior design, knitting, craft, architecture, engineering – it’s a really diverse thing.”

Using up to 2,000 pounds of fabric and stretching as long as 60 feet, their play structures can also be found in New Zealand, China, Italy, Spain, and the US – in parks, schools, and museums, at shopping malls and in housing developments. This year, the couple is working on new pieces to be installed in Dubai and Florida. 

Though they have spent much of their adult lives in Nova Scotia, the two met in Tokyo in 1982. And that is where Toshiko, whose early sculptural work led to their first crochet play structure, began her path. She was born in wartime Tokyo in 1940, but her parents moved the family to Japanese-occupied Manchuria, where her father opened a hospital for civilians, when she was 3. 

She considered going into medicine (her father was a doctor and her mother a pharmacist) but changed course after failing the entrance exam. “I was always painting and drawing – making things – and when I was doing that, my heart was really excited. So I decided to go to art school.” 

She studied textiles at Tama Art University in Tokyo and did graduate work with a focus on weaving at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. She went on to work as a textile designer in New York, but after a couple of years she moved back to Japan. She then went on to teach in her home country, the US, and Canada but found full-time academic life too comfortable, too disengaged from the world. She decided to focus on her own work instead, while continuing to teach part-time. (She still teaches textile courses at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.)

Toshiko’s early work was marked by a fascination with form and space, and an affinity for organic forms. “If you make a slit in something woven, it’s just a slit,” she says. “But with knitting, tension and the length of the slit create different shapes.” Crochet, she found, is even “freer” than knitting, making it easier for her to work with organic shapes.

But at age 30, she became depressed, feeling that “something was missing from my heart.” She had a revelation: “Textiles were produced by humans and developed for their needs. But I had been so intrigued with structures and objects that had nothing to do with people.” Feeling the need to reconnect with the living world, she created a large-scale sculptural installation reminiscent of cells. Rendered in cremona, a synthetic rope produced in Japan, it filled a room in a Tokyo gallery.

One day while Toshiko was at the gallery, two children walked in and started climbing her piece. Most artists would be appalled, but for Toshiko, the moment led to an epiphany; it hit her “like a monster.” 

“As the children started moving, the shape changed. It was bouncing and dynamic, and I thought, ‘I’m going to make a piece for children!’ ”

She made her first experiment with a play structure in 1971, for a preschool. Her goal, she says, was to “make space with textile, which is stretchy and flexible. If you put kids in there, they start bouncing and creating vibrations with each other, and they create their own play. That was the beginning of the dream.” Like her cell-inspired installation, the structure was made with cremona, but it was an inferior material, and the work only lasted six months. But, she says, “students loved it. The direction was right.”

She continued making pieces for exhibition but got the opportunity to build her first large-scale play structure in 1979, when innovative landscape designer Fumiaki Takano, a former student, asked her to create a piece for a national park in Okinawa. It proved immensely popular, and other commissions followed.

Meanwhile, Charles, who was born and raised in Nova Scotia, had earned a degree in literature before studying weaving and drawing at NSCAD in Halifax. (Toshiko was teaching a summer course while he was there in 1978, but the two didn’t cross paths). He was working as an investment banker in Japan when he met Toshiko in 1982. They got married, had a child, then moved to Bridgetown in 1988, where, two years later, they started Interplay Design and Manufacturing to focus full-time on creative play structures. 

“Our pieces are about risk,” Charles says. “That’s the whole idea. Kids see they can challenge themselves. There are always alternate routes: There’s a risky way to go, and there’s a safer way to go. And they make their own choice. It’s about making risks transparent, so they can see what they’re up against.”

Over the years, they have refined their processes and materials, using high-quality nylon, dyeing it themselves, then braiding it into rope in their workshop. (The heaviest gauge of rope is braided for them elsewhere.) Structural engineer Norihide Imagawa is a longtime partner; he tests the load-bearing capacity and integrity of each piece, with software he developed for the purpose. 

Because of the amount of wear on the structures – some support thousands of children, climbing and bouncing, each day – they require occasional replacement. But with improvements to the production process, that interval has grown. In addition to making new pieces, Toshiko and Charles are in the process of replacing the material on a 60-foot-long structure installed 28 years ago in a Tokyo sculpture park. “At the end, it was worn out and raggedy, but the kids still liked it,” Toshiko says. 

Almost three decades into their collaboration, Charles and Toshiko are busier than ever. That has posed challenges as they get older. At 64 and 76, respectively, they still create their one-of-a-kind works using two basic types of structures: AirPockets, which are crocheted by hand, and the more web-like SpaceNet pieces, which use machine-knotted nylon. Toshiko often spends eight hours a day crocheting AirPocket structures for installations, with help from Charles, but the duo is developing modular components that can be crocheted by others, reducing her workload. (Finding those others in tiny Bridgetown is another story.) They are also trying to cut down on the amount of time they need to spend on-site for final installation – which ranges from three weeks to a month. 

When she was in graduate school at Cranbrook, Toshiko remembers talking to students who dreamed of becoming famous. That’s never been her goal. Her memories of being a refugee in Manchuria after World War II remain vivid. “We walked miles and miles,” Toshiko recalls. “This long journey changed me.”

The experience helped shape the ethic of spreading joy and living in the moment that permeates her practice.

“Art is not just about critics and collections. Art is for people who live now,” she says. “Why have something precious in museums or collections? I don’t want to make monumental pieces that might last 100 years. That’s not a mindset I have. Kids know if they like something. For me, it’s really honest and fun to work with them. To me, that’s living.”