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Playtime for grown-ups: There are toys for all the kinds in us

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If there were an FAO Schwartz for adults, what kind of toys would fill it?

There would be all manner of objects for the home -- dazzling games, electronic gadgets, puzzles, kaleidoscopes, blocks, playing cards, gizmos with a function, objects to fiddle with or merely admire as pieces of art. They would be crafted from all sorts of materials, but what they all would have in common is their arresting design, form, shape and color. And there would be enough latitude in style to complement almost any home decor.

Although the common definition of toy actually excludes adult use -- "an object for children to play with" -- Keven Wilder, a former attorney who in 1985 launched a Chicago store and catalog called Chiasso (Italian for "an uproar"), believes that adults need to play just as much as children.

"It's just that as we get older, we have less time and perhaps less inclination to do so," said Mr. Wilder.

Mr. Wilder defines an adult toy as "something that chal

lenges, encourages the spirit of play and perhaps makes you think. It encourages you to get in touch with your creative side. On one level, [such an adult toy] might be functional. Or it might help us function as better human beings. It may be a stress reliever. Something utilitarian or not. Something so irresistible or intriguing that when you pick it up and start playing with it, you can't stop."

Generally, adult toys appear to fall into several categories.

There are variations of classic games such as tick-tack-toe, chess, checkers and billiards, revamped with an eye to design, craftsmanship and sometimes whimsy.

For example, one version of tick-tack-toe, from the catalog Attitudes, features cats as the X's and balls of yarn as the O's. Made of Philippine hardwood and hand-painted, this piece of veritable folk art sells for $31.

A more sophisticated offering is a handsome wood chess game designed in 1923 in the Bauhaus style of form following function: The shape of each playing piece relates to its movement on the board. The set, which is represented in the New York Museum of Modern Art's permanent design collection, is sold for $165 (chess pieces); the board is priced at $65.

Collectibles represent another category of adult toy: model airplanes, train sets, porcelain dolls and teddy bears, new and old. Prices are as varied as the collectibles themselves. Vintage glass or clay marbles start from $5, while a 58-inch-long replica of a 1930s dirt track racer from Hammacher-Schlemmer goes for $6,500.

Card collecting, long a popular pastime with kids, is catching on with adults as well. Just as youngsters today gather baseball and ninja turtle cards, adults now have the opportunity to collect a slicker and more esoteric variety. A British gallery owner commissioned 56 contemporary artists to create original artwork for a set of cards that some people have found so appealing that they have had them framed. They are available from FLAX for $16.

Or you might build a house of cards from a colorful deck designed by noted architects and furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames in 1952, and reissued several years ago by the New York Museum of Modern Art. Each card has six slots for interlocking into a variety of shapes. They are $18 from Chiasso.

Another way to experience the simple enjoyment of color and pattern is with kaleidoscopes. The seemingly infinite variety of patterns formed are just as we remember from the inexpensive cardboard versions from childhood. What has changed in kaleidoscope design is that the housing may be as spectacular as the images themselves, ranging from colorful hand-marbled paper cylinders to handsome wood with brass trim or even leaded glass.

Just as colors and patterns can ignite our creative side, there's a type of adult toy that addresses our psyches. Since the days of the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese have relaxed and meditated by rolling smooth metal balls in their hands. Today, the Sharper Image catalog features a pair of small (1 3/4 -inch) ornamental enameled balls designed with this in mind. These beautifully designed balls also ring with a high and low chime and are packaged in a wooden box lined with silk brocade for $24.95.

Another category of adult toy requires more manual expertise. For a good finger workout, there are scaled-down pinball machines that have all the bells and whistles of their full-sized counterparts: power bumpers, warp-out troughs, flashing lights, scoring drums and souped-up sound effects. The American Pinball and AstroShooter II plug into a wall outlet and are $119.95 from the Sharper Image.

If you prefer a more leisurely pace, an alternative is assembling objects more in the manner of Legos. Check out Zolo and Zolo 2, the sequel. Originally produced for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Zolo is a collection of more than 50 hand-carved, hand-painted wooden pieces that can be put together in an infinite number of ways. A winner of the "Excellence in Design" award at the Accent of Design show in New York, Zolo is $149 from FLAX. The sequel consists of 27 new pieces to stand alone or to add to the original. The wood and rubber pieces come with a pouch for small parts and a storage drum for $89.

Another throwback to childhood consists of blocks and puzzles designed for adults. Many of these block sets are affordably priced and available in a variety of patterns that create a range of graphic designs and optical illusions. Inspired by one of its own quilt exhibits, the Metropolitan Museum of Art created a set of 16 wooden cubes, each with six different patterns of various colored triangles. Quilt cubes such as these were actually used to plan the geometric rhythms of patchwork quilts. These striking toys, which sell for $19.95 a set, fit comfortably on desks or coffee tables.

"The adult puzzles, toys and games sell," said Louise Chinn, director of MOMA's department of sales and marketing, "because they are intellectually stimulating as well as visually satisfying."

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