On the recent opening day of New York City's new Museum of Mathematics, or MoMath as it is called, a colorful spherical toy was being enjoyed by kids of all ages in the midst of all sorts of high tech, user-friendly exhibits with decidedly mathematical themes. The toy -- the Hoberman Sphere -- was displaying its mesmerizing ability to fold and unfold, expand and contract, from a ball of nine inches-plus to a 30-inch sphere and back again.
In the Museum's gift shop, it was flying off the shelves as a hot new toy discovery. But in fact, the Hoberman Sphere is a classic, innovative toy on permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art. It was invented more than two decades ago by Chuck Hoberman, a former Greenwich resident and son of sculptor, Norman Hoberman and his wife, Mary Ann Hoberman, author and former Children's Poet Laureate.
Hoberman, 56, who lives in Manhattan, is acquainted with the founders of the new MoMath but was unaware his Sphere was an attraction there. He has seen the now 20-year-old toy continue to fascinate one and now two generations of kids.
"It's the simple nature of an object that gets larger," he says, "Its opening and closing -- it's a pure kind of play."
But, Hoberman adds, there is an intellectual component to his toy. "It is geometry," he explains. To be exact, in tongue-twisting if not mind-twisting language, its geometric structure is "based on the intersection of a cube and an octahedron, which makes a folding polyhedron called a trapezoidal icositetrahedron."
Hoberman, who is an architect and engineer as well as a toy designer, came up with the Sphere idea in the late 1980s. A product of Greenwich's public schools, he says he was always interested in arts and engineering, "in pop-up structures, in origami and ways to make kinetic or movable objects work." "It (the Sphere) was kind of a discovery, a flow of these ideas," he says. "It was a mathematical exploration and art project."
Hoberman, who holds 22 patents, received the patent for his Sphere in 1990. "The first ones you had to snap together," he says, "It had a kit." The next evolution had the toy being assembled in China - no more kit -- and the toy took off.
Since the debut of the Sphere, Hoberman has created other toys, such as the Hoberman Switch Pitch. "It's a ball that flips color," he says. ("Toss it in the air and watch the colors magically flip," the promo reads.) Yet none, so far, has had the staying power of the Hoberman Sphere.
However, despite the popularity -- and the genius -- of the Sphere, it is Hoberman's transformable structures done on a much larger scale that have given him a truly worldwide profile. His Hoberman Arch was the centerpiece of the Medal Plaza at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, and was, at the time, the largest unfolding structure in the world, according to press materials. It is now installed at a site in Salt Lake City as a permanent structure. "It no longer moves," he says.
Other noteworthy moveable structures of Hoberman's include a retractable dome for the 2000 World's Fair in Germany, and an Expanding Geodesic Dome at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. He has also installed his architectural art in a vineyard in France, and created a seven-story transformable video screen for the Irish rock bank U2's 2009 world tour.
In 2013 he and his Hoberman Associates will be realizing other outdoor architectural projects as well as fulfilling art commissions from private collectors.
When asked what were his formative influences, he is quick to answer, "My extraordinarily talented parents. With my dad," he says, "if you've seen my works, there's a familiar language. He's a wonderful artist."