07/30/2012 03:42 pm ET

'Century of the Child: Growing By Design, 1900-2000' At MoMA In New York City

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.

"Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000" runs at the Museum of Modern Art through November 5, 2012.