Arthur Carrara and the magnetic toys

Arthur Carrara was born in Chicago in 1914. Son of an Italian immigrant that worked in a clay manufacture that provided ornamental parts for the buildings designed by the famous north american architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). Since he was a young boy Arthur manifested a very strong interest for architecture and, in 1931, he visited with his school class an exposition about Frank Lloyd Wright and attended to his famous lecture "To the Young Man in Architecture", delivered at the Art Institute of Chicago. Later he would state that this lecture was one of the most important and determinant moment for his own professional life. Carrara began his studies in architecture and engineering at the University of Illinois and graduated in 1937. After the conclusion of his academic formation he worked a short period as drawer in the John van Bergen’s office, a Frank Lloyd Wright’s collaborator.

During the World War II Carrara served in the army of United States of America in the Pacific Ocean area as topographer. He also was charged for the design of some logistical support buildings in Australia and in the Philippines.
In 1943, when he was in Australia, the local government demands to him the design for the Café Borranical, a very complex moving structure inserted in a botanical garden on the Yarra River cost, near Melbourne. This project represented the opportunity for the architect to experience some ideas about the application of hydraulics and magnetic systems in the buildings construction. The solution was a central plan that looks like a flower whose petals were platforms that, moving down and up, changed the building form increasing its surface.

In 1944, with the rank of Major in the army, was invited by the Philippines’s City Planning Commission to design the urban plan of Manila and Cebu. This two cities were bombed during the bigger urban battle of the Pacific war. 95% of Manila, at the time under japonese domain, was raised between 3rd February and 3rd March 1945 during a battle that was compared, for its violence, to the Warsaw destruction or to the Stalingrad battle.

In 1946 Carrara returned to Chicago where he opened an architectural office. He made several projects for houses, service buildings, expositions and designed some industrial products like furniture and lights. Later, the increasing workloads justified, in 1965, to open a second office in Buffalo in the state of New York. In his work it is possible to recognize both influences of Prairie Houses style by Frank Lloyd Wright, Modern Movement canons and some high-tech experiences.

Carrara arrived to the idea to adopt magnetism in building construction before the war period when he had thought about the possibility to create structural joins for metallic building that could be done by this system. However, given the weakness of the magnets at the time, this project never left the paper.

At the end of 1940 was found the Alnico, an iron alloy with Aluminum, Nickel and Cobalt beyond other metals in smaller amount (the own name of the alloy is the combination of the main elements: Al, Ni, Co). This metal was discovered twenty years earlier during a military investigation looking for substitute electromagnets with permanent magnets. The magnetic field created by this alloy is so strong that it can support 1000 times its own weight; in this capability Carrara saw a really big potential to apply in his own projects.
So it is not really surprising that, in 1947, Carrara started a design of a toy that could show the power of magnetism and his possibilities for the architecture field. Having failed in the real building scale, Carrara decided to apply the magnetic technologies in a smaller scale, more specifically in a toy, a construction set for children.

The Magnet Master was desenvolved in a partnership between Arthur Carrara, his brother Reno and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It was suggested, by the magazine Everyday Art Quarterly, as a toy for people of every age or intellectual conditions.

About the toy Carrara wrote, in the catalog of the exposition of 1960 at the Milwaukee Art Center: “Magnet Master grew out of my experiments with the new found magnetic and electromagnetic metals. Every idea of man is first employed as a toy or in a toy. Every scientific principle was at first presented in a toy form. Magnet Master grew out of a comprehensive study of man’s methods of fastening materials (...) joinery techniques. The uses inherent in Magnet Master for architecture and other fields are apparent. As a study method Magnet Master was first exhibited and manufactured with the tremendous encouragement and financial help of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which deserves the credit or whatever popular acceptance this adventure has received. The unit shown here has been distributed around the world, it is hoped with some good effect. It has been expanded as an architectural concept for the first time in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial”.

Sold in a lemon yellow box, the Magnet Master was made by a set of metal parts joinable by socket or by magnetism. It was possible to build tridimensional structures where the metallic junctions give an extremely lightness and elegance to the parts due to the almost dematerialization of the group. Moreover, the magnetic parts allowed that children could join, as a complement, any other piece like clips, springs, pins or even nails.

In the box there were no instructions because, as was written in its advertising brochure, “children are naturally imaginative and will derive greater pleasure and benefit when left to their own images and devices”. This idea was at the base of a promotional article published in the Look magazine of February 1949 where the famous painter Max Weber was photographed playing with Johnny, his own 11 years old son.
The toy was advertised in a lot of museums and educational institutions. There was a specimen in the children room in the Marcel Breuer prototype house built at the Moma in New York, in the exposition of 1949.

In 1960 Carrara participated in the competition for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial with a proposal based on the investigations that he was developing for the Magnet Master design. It was a pyramid whit a suspended sphere by a magnetic field.

Although it received a strong commercial support and be associated with some of the most important artist of the time, for the Magnet Masted never arrived a real commercial success. Anyway it remained for us a real example of architectural toy paradigm.


  1. I am very interested in purchasing a Magnet Master set. If you have one or know of one for sale, please contact me:
    802-299-5663 Thanks!

    1. Sorry for the delay in my reply.
      Unfortunately Magnet Master is no more produced since long time ago. Maybe today it would be too "dangerous" for children...
      You can always look on Ebay or on some auctions sites, but I'm not sure you will find the toy because it is quite rare.

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