“Czech children obviously had the most fun,” noted a viewer of Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900–2000. Many of that country’s mid-century toys would look as good on a mantle as they would in a nursery. MoMA’s latest design exhibition, put on by architecture and design curator Juliet Kinchin with curatorial associate Aidan O’Connor, takes a sweeping view of 20th-century design through the lens of childhood. “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children,” Nelson Mandela remarked in 1995. Book-ended by the publication in 1900 of Century of the Child, a manifesto positing the universal rights and well-being of children as the defining mission for the century, and the first child-themed Aspen International Design Conference, Growing by Design, in 1990, the ambitious survey charts the confluence of modern design thinking and childhood into seven nodes. Underpinning all of these, notes Kinchin, “is the faith among designers in the power of aesthetic activity to shape everyday life.” Above all, Century of the Child reveals that our attempts to shape the world for children speak volumes about how we want to see it ourselves.
First there was Froebel. “New Century, New Child, New Art,” the exhibition’s first section, begins with a soft landing. Amidst films of dancing children and cases of colorful objects, educational theorists Friedrich Froebel, Rudolf Steiner, and Maria Montessori emerge as the architects of a significant shift from a world of straight lines, sharp corners, and stiff yardsticks to a free-form embrace of intuitive exploration and a distinctly tactile approach to education. While Montessori promoted child-directed, activity-based learning, the “gifts” and “occupations,” of Froebel’s kindergarten foregrounded creativity and fostered an appreciation of natural harmony.
As the room entitled “Avant-Garde Playtime” reveals, the child’s viewpoint, valued and encouraged by artists and educators in the first decade of the century, became actively sought out following World War I. “Making the simple complicated is commonplace,” American Jazz giant Charles Mingus once remarked, concluding, “making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.” Longing to recapture the “innocent eye” of the child in the postwar years, artists and designers such as Giacamo Balla, Bruno Taut, Gerrit Rietveld, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, and Antonio Rubino, turned to childhood as a way to both access the purest forms of expression and recapture an unmediated attitude towards the world. With the Czech childhood-envy-inducing toys of Ladislav Sutnar, as well as those of Uruguay’s Joaquín Torres García, and Lotte Reiniger’s exquisitely sophisticated animated feature of 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, this room alone is worth the price of admission.
While the majority of Sutnar’s so-called “mental vitamins” with which avant-garde design has nourished youth is commendable, the exhibition’s sections “Light, Air, Health” and “Children of the Body Politic” expose a darker side to design’s persuasive power. Here utopian and dystopian models reveal how closely designers have danced with socio-political agendas. Just as the interwar period’s determination to transform society into a beacon of light and health freed young bodies to move unencumbered by the prior confines of apparel and architecture, the onset of World War II also saw pliable young minds willfully molded to the propaganda of place. From Russia, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan to Britain, Austria, and the United States, one cannot help but acknowledge that the story of modern design is not entirely a benevolent one.
In “Regeneration,” the viewer steps into the more familiar territory of the Baby Boom era. Once again a postwar exuberance and optimism is expressed through more color and a seemingly more carefree approach. Child-centered design, informed by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, the Dutch playground pioneer Aldo Van Eyck, LEGO, Tinker Toys, and the Slinky, increasingly celebrated objects that embodied timelessness and simple discovery. Noticeably absent, however, is any discussion of gender-specific play and the ways in which toy design may have reinforced associated stereotypes.
The pressure of the challenge to neatly box a century into a tidy progression of objects and attitudes is most clearly felt within the final two sections, where the exhibition’s lid suddenly seems to pop open with Jack-in-the-Box force. In “Power Play,” Andreas Gursky’s monumental color print Toys “R” Us compellingly conveys the extent to which childhood is now circumscribed by commercialism. However, this section’s curation seems more noteworthy for its exclusions than for the objects on display. Pee-wee’s Playhouse—whose video projection and original set props dominate the room—draws attention to the absence of Sesame Street, a noteworthy presage to the now multi-million dollar “edutainment” industry. Similarly, the absence of postmodern giants like Barbie and McDonald’s, the second of which thankfully receives attention in the catalog, seem oddly conspicuous oversights.
The ultimate section, “Designing Better Worlds,” uncharacteristically abandons the exhibition’s heretofore chronological progression. As with “Power Play,” this exploration is fraught by its exclusions, often displaying the utopic visions of social design without any apparent discussion of their dystopic dangers. To wit, the featured One Laptop per Child, Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop project of 2005, projected to serve two billion children around the world and change education as we know it, is now widely acknowledged as a failure, though no mention of this is made within the gallery. The complexities of the impact of technological toys also receives short shrift, given the implications that it has on the ways in which children play, interact, and imagine. Indeed it could be presented as a much more thought-provoking endnote than the seemingly misplaced playground examination. If the century of the child began with a newly active exploration of the world through objects and a hands-on approach to education, it can be seen to have ended with a shift from a manual involvement with objects to a symbolic relationship with information, images, and amusement.
In July of 2010 a Newsweek feature story entitled “The Creativity Crisis” revealed that American creativity scores have been in steady decline since 1990, with the trend most pronounced for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. “The development of the child,” reads the manifesto The Century of the Child, from which the exhibition draws its name, “answers in miniature to the development of mankind as a whole.” MoMA’s exhibition, a monumental and—by and large—masterful undertaking, raises fundamental questions about how we are designing our present and defining our future.