Nina Baillie in the House of Cards at the ArtScience Museum. Picture: Andrew Baillie

They say bad luck comes in threes but sometimes out of a crisis there arises an opportunity.

Bad-luck story number one happened at the excellent Swissotel in central Singapore, where I was spending six nights with my family on a recent holiday. Our rather headstrong seven-year- old, Anya, had ignored my calls to wear her thongs as we were leaving the pleasant double-pool area and (skip to the next paragraph if you're squeamish) pulled open a door on her foot, all but taking off her big toenail.

Bad-luck story number two started a few hours later when, perhaps because of the shock, Anya spent the night being sick, meaning my wife and I had to leap into action with the bucket every hour.

So it was with a tired head that I stepped out into the humidity the next morning with my other daughter, 10-year-old Nina, while my wife Leyanne nursed the patient before we swapped sometime around lunchtime. But what to do with Nina? After all, there was no point ruining the holiday for everyone.

As I sat alfresco with my extra- strong coffee and toast at the French-looking Marche Movenpick bistro, which is attached to the same Raffles City complex as our hotel, we considered the options. Universal Studios on Sentosa Island? Well, that needs a full day to get your money's worth, and it wouldn't have been fair on Leyanne to leave her staring at four walls for so long.

Why not just go on the cable car to Sentosa and enjoy the views? A good idea, especially as Leyanne had found it too high and scary when we went on it in 2001, and Anya is no braver than her. But glimpsing the forbidden theme parks and water slide beyond would have been torture for Nina.

The Singapore Flyer, their version of the London Eye? Yes, but Anya was desperate to do that too and we all thought it would be better at night.

The ArtScience Museum we had seen on a boat tour and admired for its lotus-like architecture? Well, Nina loved the science museums in Glasgow and London. Sorted.

Off we set on the MRT subway system and, as both girls tend to behave better when they are on their own, this was an unexpected chance to bond. It started by giving Nina some responsibility and letting her work out which train lines we needed to go on and add the correct fare to her reusable subway card (even she noticed the $S1.20 ($1) fare to Bayfront was much cheaper than Perth). Then on the train, we stood at a big window at the front and tried to work out how it moved through the dark tunnels without a driver. Finally, we made our way to the museum through The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, checking out the establishments with $S200,000 Rolex watches in their window.

But then . . . bad-luck story number three.

As we walked into the ArtScience Museum it seemed strangely empty. Just four staff at the payment desk. I soon discovered that, of the three floors in the building, only one was being used, for an exhibition called Essential Eames: A Herman Miller Exhibition. I have to confess I had no idea who Eames was. Or Herman Miller. And the big new show, Dinosaurs: Dawn to Extinction, wasn't starting until Saturday.

Perhaps out of pity for the staff, I decided we should just take our chances. After all, it was a break from the heat, we might learn something and the price - $S14 for me and $S8 for Nina - was less than I'd paid for breakfast, meaning if we only lasted 15 minutes it wouldn't be so bad.

An hour and a half later we stepped back out in the bright haze of the Lion City, certainly feeling a little brighter in our heads.

I had discovered that Eames was not one person, but Charles and Ray, a husband and wife who were one of history's most influential design duos. They married in 1941, worked in California, and are best known for producing furniture that was ahead of its time, although their influence extended into architecture, exhibitions, toy making, photography and film.

The gallery floor, which flows in a circle around the lotus flower, is split into these themes with more than 100 artefacts on show, interspersed by clever Eames quotes on the walls (with Chinese translation) and interactive exhibits. So Nina and I found ourselves considering why a banana leaf, of all things, is the perfect design for eating and breaking down class barriers among the castes in India. Or gazing at a giant Moebius Band and trying to work out how on earth the same surface could suddenly reverse in on itself. Or firing some metal balls into a cone and being shown the workings of celestial mechanics (why planets respond to gravity without bumping into each other). Or enjoying the toy section and its House of Cards, designed originally for the Eames' grandchildren as cards which can be locked together to make different colourful structures, with its accompanying quote by Charles: "Toys are not really as innocent as they look. Toys and games can be the precursors to serious ideas."

But my favourite moment came when we walked into the film zone and spotted a projection on the white wall. It was called Powers of Ten and suddenly I remembered watching it at school or in a cinema when I was about Nina's age. And amazingly, all these years later, she was intrigued too.

Produced in 1977 (the year before Charles died) and narrated by physicist Phillip Morrison, Powers of Ten is described as "an adventure in scale". It starts with a camera hovering directly above a couple having a picnic in Chicago, then moves away until every 10 seconds we view the scene from 10 times further out. Very soon we are flying through space and viewing our galaxy as a speck of light, before the camera changes direction and zooms back in on its Chicago location before moving into the hand of the Chicago man, with 10 times more magnification every 10 seconds. Suddenly all you can see are protons and quarks and other things that are hard to get your head around, but fascinating nonetheless.

With my brain starting to hurt, it was time for some light relief. The next room looked like an IKEA showroom, but in fact had been designed by the Eameses from the 1940s (I told you they were ahead of their time). Pride of place was a chair made for Pope John Paul II's 1990 tour of Mexico. It was produced by Herman Miller, the company that had manufactured the "Eames chair", which was also on display. Beside this was a chance for budding young (and 41-year-old) designers to try their best using pipe cleaners, rolls, paper, glue and the like.

With no one else around, Nina and I spent a happy 15 minutes creating our own characters. Mine would be a present for Anya half an hour later, ensuring happy faces and a morning well spent.

The West Australian

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