In 1900, Swedish design reformer Ellen Key stated that the “century of the child” was upon us, predicting that we’d spend the next 100 years addressing how children should be raised and nurtured. Now, we can safely say that Key was right. We live in a time where dad bloggers, car seat designers, Diaper Genies and mountains of parenting books are the norm. Century of the Child: Growing by Design, a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, begins with Key’s statement and tries to explain how we got to this point, through a history of children’s toys and memorabilia. The show tries to address so many facets of childhood — politics, ethics, philosophy — that the narrative thread isn’t totally clear. What does become clear, however, is that our ideas of child rearing are constantly in flux, changing through time and across cultures.
At the start of the 20th century, children were viewed as miniature adults. These notions began to shift as the exploration of childhood development blossomed. Out of the dark, somber wood of spartan school houses came the playful techniques of Maria Montessori, an Italian medical student with an interest in children with learning disabilities. Montessori believed that physical objects would stimulate children’s senses, and her activity-based teaching methods and colorful learning toys (see above image) inspired designers and schools around the world. Montessori’s work established childhood as an integral realm of study for philosophers, psychologists, artists and designers.
The decade between the two world wars repositioned children as a symbol of national pride. To nourish these torch bearers, designers looked to three themes: light, air and health. Architect Jan Duiker addressed these themes in his open-air school for the healthy child, built in Amsterdam in the late 1920s. Each floor of the steel-framed structure featured cantilevered gardens and large, open windows, looking more like a modern oasis than a scholastic environment. Printed material from the era encouraged proper nutrition and physical exercise, even for the tiniest of toddlers.
The exhibition isn’t all smiles and delight — an unexpected darkness hovers around the edges. Military exploits were (and still are) fodder for child-targeted designs; an Italian child’s tableware set manufactured by Richard Ginori features illustrations of pith helmets, rifles, tanks and other symbols of colonialism. A 1930s child’s kimono from Japan hangs from the ceiling of the gallery, its fabric patterned with images of armed soldiers and boy scouts. World War II posters and Soviet-era advertisements promoted the shining face of youth as the pillar of society. An Italian poster from 1935 panders to the country’s young boys, encouraging them to join dictator Bernito Mussolini’s army when they grow up. A later exhibit mentions the AK-47, ”an assault rifle designed in the Soviet Union at the end of World War II … simple and light enough to be wielded, stripped and reassembled by child soldiers as young as eight years old.”
Fortunately, the exhibition rounds out with a view of the slew of international designers determined to create nurturing items for children that celebrate the preciousness of growing up. For example, Renate Müller’s therapeutic hippopotamus, one of her many burlap-sewn beasts, aid in the development of children’s tactile senses. Sven-Eric Juhlin’s creation of the sippy-cup signaled the first effort to design an item for children, rather than miniaturizing adult goods. Other incredibly compelling items in the show were developed for disabled children: Twan Verdonck’s Tummy helps children deal with anxiety, while the Krabat Jockey chair is designed to help children with cerebral palsy.
At this exhibit, I expected to see midcentury modern toys, bubbly and rainbow colored, pristinely sealed in glass vitrines. MoMA still delivers just that, despite the show’s heavy undertone. Inspiring toys from the 1960s-1990s provide a moment to reflect upon the pure joy of being a kid. And any retrospective on childhood just wouldn’t be right without a Slinky or Legos, both of which make an appearance. But no matter how colorful or silly, every object designed with children in mind comes with heavy implications hidden behind a layer of innocence. Children take cues from their surroundings, which are shaped by designers, politicians and parents. The objects in the exhibition show our struggle to determine how children should be raised. Just as growing up is a learning process, so is figuring out what’s best for our kids.
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.