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Play it again, Sam, or whoever

April 24, 2003|David A. Keeps | Special to The Times

Most game manufacturers play by a simple rule: Make it cheap and cheerful. And for a few generations, that worked just fine. Then came video games, and let's be honest. When was the last time you even thought about the Scrabble set or checkerboard stowed away in the closet?

Now, however, classic board games such as backgammon and dominoes are making a stylish comeback, not just as playthings but as art objects worthy of a permanent place on the table.

Architect Michael Graves is the latest to join the playgroup. He introduced five games in his 2003 collection for Target, all of them Shaker-chic wooden playing sets: tic-tac-toe, dominoes, Chinese checkers, poker, and chess and checkers. Graves' crowning achievement is a Monopoly set with a pullout cash drawer, redesigned houses and hotels and playing pieces based on his whimsical appliances.

They join a chess set he previously designed for the line. Graves pointed out there is a long history of cutting-edge designers working on games. "One of the problems assigned to beginning students at the Bauhaus in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was the design of various board games," Graves said.

About three years ago, product designer Karim Rashid took his turn at the chess set, casting sleekly abstract, slightly squishy pieces in matte poly- resin. The first edition, in green and orange, was eye candy for modernistas, the perfect complement to a mid-century coffee table. Now it comes in acid yellow and purple and black and white, the same color combinations for Rashid's minimalist backgammon board.

By contrast, Hermes' take on backgammon -- a hand-stitched leather board with wood game pieces that rolls up to fit in a pocket -- is Old World elegance at an Old Money price.

Fine artists are also upping the ante. David Quan's Museum of Modern Art Dominoes are simultaneously 21st century and timeless: bow-tie shaped solid walnut pieces with inlaid white dots.

For Pasadena-based painter Tim Biskup, a deck of playing cards becomes a "Lucky Stack," a gallery of 54 images (including two jokers) from his early '60s illustration-style repertoire. The deck is so intricately amusing, it'll put a smile on even the most poker-faced.

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