A world in which designers think about and cater to children -- incorporating ideas of childhood into both their products (from UNICEF campaigns and urban playgrounds to teaching tools and toy robots) and their creative processes (emphasizing childlike playfulness and curiosity) -- may seem like the norm in 2012. But “Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000,” a new exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, shows that this phenomenon was born in the 20th century.
The inspiration for the exhibit is Swedish writer Ellen Key’s 1900 book “The Century of the Child,” which the museum says “presaged the 20th century as a period of intensified focus and progressive thinking regarding the rights, development, and well-being of children as interests of utmost importance to all society.”
Curator Juliet Kinchin told The Huffington Post that Key’s “holistic” vision of the modern child -- and concept of childhood as “related to a whole range of social agendas … and the quality of our designed environment” -- ultimately inspired an exhibition that represents a “slightly new road map through the 20th century of modernist design.”
She also spoke to us about the “fundamental questions” raised by designing for children -- and the benefits we can all derive from "trying to recapture that innate curiosity and playfulness and ebullience that children seem to have."
Where did the idea for the show originate?
We wanted to to treat a major dimension of modern design in the 20th century. The whole preoccupation with childhood and the childlike to date hasn't been treated in a wide-ranging or full-on way, and yet it really does emerge as absolutely key to an understanding of modernist design. It’s apparent in every area of designers (education and their practice); it's key to ideas about creativity and innovation in design. So really, this was almost a way of providing a slightly new road map through the 20th century of modernist design.
One of the things that inspired us about Ellen Key's book was the holistic nature of her vision of the modern child. That she didn't look at thinking about childhood in a vacuum, but saw it as related to a whole range of social agendas, or issues about urbanization, and the quality of our designed environment. She was a campaigner advocating for an end to child labor -- and many of the challenges she outlined are still facing designers today. We are not much better at accommodating the need of children in our urban environment, where there is such pressure on providing adequate public space and facilities.
What has changed in terms of design for children over the course of the century?
Many products now designed for children are far more rigorously tested for safety than they ever were in the early 20th century. But that has a flipside as well. We're living in a time of risk-averse attitudes to childhood; we're so worried about trying to police children's access to the digital environment, with fears about online stalking or exposure of children to images and experiences that might traumatize or harm them in certain ways. And also in the physical environment of playground design, for example, it's almost as though we want to mollycoddle children.
The exhibition has everything from toys to totalitarian propaganda. How do you explain these particular extremes?
As soon as you start thinking about designing for children, it raises fundamental questions of what kind of society you want those children to inherit -- what kind of values, what kind of future world you're preparing them for. This emphasis on designing and shaping the future in relation to children is a very powerful theme that runs right through the 20th century. If you have a very powerful bent of where you want society to go, then that is inevitably political, and that's one of the paradoxical areas we've been trying to look at. So much design is incredibly utopian and idealistic -- but that can so easily shade into more totalitarian approaches of the adult knowing best or the state knowing best for children.
Would you say that designers became more playful over the course of the century?
Definitely. And this idea of "play," and trying to recapture that innate curiosity and playfulness and ebullience that children seem to have -- that is such a great way of refreshing our creativity, whether we're professional designers or just in our own working lives. It's a way of taking you out of yourself, I think, imaginatively and creatively.
Froebel Gift No. 2: Sphere, Cylinder, and Cube
Froebel Gift No. 2: Sphere, Cylinder, and Cube. c. 1890. Manufactured by J. L. Hammett Co., Braintree, Massachusetts (est. 1863). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Lawrence Benenson, 2011
Design for children's room
Mariska Undi (Hungarian, 1877-1959). Design for children's room. 1903. Published by the Hungarian Ministry of Culture in Mintalapok (1903), New folio 1 (IX), no. 1, sheet 2. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase
Calendar Picture Book
Magda Mautner von Markhof (Austrian, 1881-1944). <em>Kalenderbilderbuch</em> (Calendar Picture Book). 1905. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder
"The bad child" bedroom panel
Antonio Rubino (Italian, 1880-1964). <em>Il bimbo cattivo</em> (The bad child) bedroom panel. c. 1924. Wolfsoniana - Fondazione regionale per la Cultura e lo Spettacolo, Genoa
Joaquín Torres-García (Uruguayan, 1874-1949). Three Figures. c. 1925. Daniela Chappard Foundation. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Spain
The Soviet Russian Exhibition
El Lissitzky (Russian, 1890-1941). <em>USSR. Die russische Austellung</em> (The Soviet Russian Exhibition). Poster for exhibition at the Zurich Kunstgewerbe Museum, 1929. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Teaching materials commissioned by Maria Montessori
Teaching materials commissioned by Maria Montessori. 1920s. Manufactured by Baroni e Marangon, Gonzaga, Italy (est. 1911). Collection of Maurizio Marzadori, Bologna
Graf Zeppelin toy dirigible
Graf Zeppelin toy dirigible. c. 1930. Manufacture attributed to J.C. Penney Co., Inc., Plano, Texas. Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The Modernism Collection, gift of Norwest Bank Minnesota
Series of Personifications of Childhood Misdeeds
Minka Podhájská (Czechoslovak, born Moravia [now Czech Republic], 1881-1963). Series of Personifications of Childhood Misdeeds. 1930. Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague
Marcel Breuer's B341/2 chair and B53 table
Detail from <em>Stahlromöbel</em> (Tubular steel furniture), loose-leaf sales catalogue for furniture offered by the Thonet Company, showing Marcel Breuer's B341/2 chair and B53 table. 1930-31. Published by Thonet International Press Service, Koln. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Department of Architecture and Design Study Center
"The Fight for the Polytechnic Schools is the Fight for the Five-Year Plan, and for a Communist Education of the body politic"
Elizawieta Ignatowitsch (Russian, 1903- 1983). The Fight for the Polytechnic Schools is the Fight for the Five-Year Plan, and for a Communist Education of the body politic. 1931. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Miss Jessie Rosenfeld
John Rideout (American, 1898 - 1951) and Harold Van Doren (American, 1895-1957). Skippy-Racer scooter. c. 1933. Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Gift of funds from Don and Diana Lee Lucker
The Cycle of a Woman's Life
Lucienne Bloch (American, b. Switzerland, 1909-1999). <em>The Cycle of a Woman's Life</em> study for a mural commissioned by Federal Art Project, Works Progress Administration, for the House of Detention for Women, Greenwich Village, New York. 1935. The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
Build the Town building blocks
Ladislav Sutnar (American, born Bohemia [now Czech Republic]. 1897-1976). Build the Town building blocks. 1940-43. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Ctislav Sutnar and Radoslav Sutnar.
Game of the 3 geese
Unknown Italian designer. Gioco delle 3 oche (Game of the 3 geese). c. 1944. The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection
Jean Prouvé (French, 1901-1984). School desk. 1946. Manufactured by Ateliers Jean Prouvé, Nancy. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Dorothy Cullman Purchase Fund
Hans Brockhage (German, 1925-2009) and Erwin Andrä (German, dates unknown). Schaukelwagon (Rocking car). 1950. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Architecture and Design Purchase Fund
Holdrakèta and original box. c. 1960. Manufactured by Lemezaru Gyar, Budapest (est. 1950). Collection of Joan Wadleigh Curran, Philadelphia
"Children in the Museum of the Twentieth Century"
Oldřich Lipský (Czechoslovak, 1924-1986). "Children in the Museum of the Twentieth Century," still from the film <em>Muž z prvního století</em> (Man from the first century). 1962. Národní Filmovy Archiv, Prague
Ford and Subaru toy cars
Ford convertible toy car with original box. c. 1956. Manufactured by Marusan Shoten Ltd., Tokyo (est. 1947). Subaru 360 toy car with original box. c. 1963. Manufactured by Bandai, Tokyo (est. 1950). Bruce Sterling Collection, New York
Jukka Veistola (Finnish, born 1946). UNICEF. 1969. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designer
Chica modular children's chairs
Jonathan De Pas (Italian, 1932-1991), Donato D'Urbino (Italian, born 1935), Giorgio DeCurso (Italian, born 1927), and Paolo Lomazzi (Italian, born 1936). Chica modular children's chairs. 1971. Manufactured by BBB Bonacina, Spilimbergo. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designers
Boy on the Wall, Hammarkullen
Jens S. Jensen (Swedish, born 1946). <em>Boy on the Wall, Hammarkullen,</em> Gothenburg. 1973. Photograph of Michael (age 9). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jens S. Jensen, 2012
Omnibot 2000, remote-controlled robot. c. 1985. Manufactured by Tomy (formerly Tomiyama), Katsushika, Tokyo. Space Age Museum/Kleeman Family Collection, Litchfield, Connecticut
Indoor play area
Renate Müller (German, born 1945). Indoor play area. 1985. Collection of Zesty Meyers and Evan Snyderman / R 20th Century
Geopark, Stavanger, Norway
Helen + Hard AS (Norwegian, established 1996). Siv Helene Stangeland (Norwegian, born 1966) and Reinhard Kropf (Austrian, born 1967). Geopark, Stavanger, Norway. 2011. Photograph by Emile Ashley. Courtesy of the Architects
"Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000" runs at the Museum of Modern Art through November 5, 2012.