11:13 am Aug. 9, 2012
In The Hudsucker Proxy, when a toy company’s stocks and head exec take the plunge (the latter literally out the window), unwitting mailroom worker Norville Barnes is nominated as the company’s acting president. The film’s recurring stutter is Barnes’ invention: a circle drawn on a piece of paper that he captions with, “You know, for kids!”
Neither the audience nor Barnes’ coworkers anticipate that this scratch-work, an unintelligible 2-dimensional proposal, is actually the hula hoop—a product that saves the company and changes society forever.
Popular design is often similarly opaque on the drawing board, and similarly transformative once out in the world. The struggle to understand the tenuous relationship between proposal and impact plays out again and again in Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000, an exhibition on now at Museum of Modern Art of roughly 500 objects created for children (clothing, desks and chairs, notebooks, computer games, playgrounds, advertisements, films, television shows) between the years 1900 and 2000, many coming from familiar names in both art and child-rearing in the West—Steiner, Montessori, Bauhaus, Disney. Densely packed, this exhibition is unwieldy at times, the many objects getting lost amid an ambitious theme.
The show takes its title—and begins to unfurl that theme—from two sources. One is Swedish design reformer and social theorist Ellen Key’s 1900 book The Century of the Child, which, the show’s catalogue tells us, “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.” "Growing by Design" was the title of the 1990 International Design Conference in Aspen, which investigated how the needs of children were related to the wants of the community as expressed through design. Largely then, the exhibition displays objects with an inherent social (rather than purely commercial) goal, and asks how (rather than how well) the 20th century managed to meet Key’s challenge.
According to curator Juliet Kinchin’s exhibition text, the renewed focus on youth in the 20th century “allow[ed] the avant-garde access to unique freedom and creativity.” In other words, empowered by the pervasiveness of the ideas of Key and similar thinkers at the start of the 20th century, artists took the new primacy of childhood as license for innovative thought. Kinchin’s suggestion has an implicit warning: if all kinds of ideas can be projected onto children, and allow for artistic explorations and transgressions expressed through design, children can end up learning all kinds of ideas—from the esoteric teachings of Rudolf Steiner to the absurdism of Pee-wee Herman, sure, but also to fascism, intolerance, and militarism. The show is very careful to accentuate the former and sidestep the latter.
The show is organized in seven sections, each describing a different thematic while staying loosely chronological. In the first, “New Century, New Child, New Art” the founding conceptualizations of childhood—and the significance of the adoption of Kindergarten—are explored. By the Teens and ‘20s childhood has transformed into “Avant-Garde Playtime” via Bauhaus and Dada wares for kids. Next, “Light, Air, Health” explores products that attempt to offer children play that is salutary in nature, imbued with nationalist notions of rearing strong bodies as well as minds.
“Children and the Body Politic” is the only decidedly political section, and features wartime propaganda material made with children in mind. “Regeneration” covers the mass-market explosion of the ‘50s. “Power Play” brings children’s products into the technological era that’s become so central to childhood today. Finally, “Designing Better Worlds” brings us roughly to the present, with designs that now take into consideration a globalized planet and its economic disparity. Each section is densely packed with objects, and moving among the toys, furniture, gizmos, gadgets, books, and learning devices—from Surrealist marionettes to tinplate Subaru and Ford models to hand-tooled leather sandals to Bauhaus bedroom furniture—one strongly feels the urge to touch and play (even though you can’t), perhaps a mark of the success of design.
Despite the wealth of information on offer through wall text (not to mention the exhibition’s terrific website), the most useful way to approach this show isn’t the one scripted. Rather, the exhibition tells a series of interesting stories about the lineage of design—objects that show the dialogs between teachers and students (in the strict and the general sense) and how certain strategies—theoretical and formal—were passed between generations.
A prime example of this occurs in “New Century,” where the once-unorthodox educational theories of 19th-century German pedagogist Friedrich Froebel, credited by many with inventing contemporary childhood, are represented by his kindergarten tools—brightly colored wooden geometric blocks and workbooks depicting the same; such objects privileged thingliness over words and introduced gaming into education. These didactic toys have a tremendous affinity with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Clerestory Windows from Avery Conley Playhouse, Riverside, Illinois (1912), exhibited nearby. Wright claimed his first building materials were a set of Froebel blocks given to him by his mother. Here Wright transforms the semiotics of parades, flattening a scene into a considered pattern of colored forms—circles and rectangles—that are compressed, controlled, and transparent. The glass pieces on display continue a conversation, one playing out Froebel’s optimism toward geometry and Wright’s mastery toward industry. Rational methods of production meet light and air—quite literally. Seeing this, it is hard for the mind not to wander uptown to the Guggenheim, its cylinder a kind of classroom in which much of 20th century art is put on offer for the conversation to continue.
In “Avant-Garde Playtime,” examples from the Bauhaus—the famous German school which leveled fine arts and design, and often evinced a confluence of artistry and industry, creating practical handmade items meant for mass production—proffer simple forms and primary colors, as exemplified by the stark lines of Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s Nursery Furniture (1923-1924) in painted wood. Elsewhere, the play with thingliness and color continues in Anni Albers’ gouache on paper, Rug Design for Child’s Room (1928)—the orthogonal lines nearly reverberating off the paper. These are nestled not far from Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack’s Optical Color-Mixer (1924) a spinning top that came with a set of circular inserts cut into chromatic slivers of pie that gyrate when spun. Such bustling energy transmitted by form, color, and text is also seen in Poster for the Great Bridge Review, by Oskar Schlemmer (1926)—one could imagine the concatenation wiggling and waggling into a dizzying whir. Here are Froebel’s blocks and Wright’s windows evolved again, and made kinetic.
Later on these colors, forms, and playfulness return again, always with some added element. In “Regeneration” it’s in the Tinkertoy Curtain Wall Builder (one of numerous toys focused on the play of making buildings that thread through the show), where children themselves are invited to manipulate form, be their own Wrights, this time using interchangeable plastic pieces to build with. In “Power Play” it’s the Chica modular children’s chairs, themselves the result of late-century mass-production capabilities but also designed to be adaptable, furniture itself turned into a toy.
One relatively weak point: By sequestering the “political” into just one section, “Children and The Body Politic,” the show runs the risk of disengaging the objects from the conditions that led to their creation. Shomei Tomatsu’s 1961 image Girl Who Had Experienced the Atom Bomb Explosion While Still in her Mother's Womb, a brutal C-print, is rightly ensconced within “The Body Politic.” Yet the tin-plate toy model Subaru in “Regeneration” seems no less tied to its political and social realities (a Japanese company that was one of that nation’s main aircraft manufacturers leading up to WWII, switched to car-making following the war, and eventually came to be one of the top Japanese car imports to the United States). Similarly many of the toys manufactured in America during the late ‘40s and ‘50s would never have been developed without a surplus of technology production in wartime, later re-packaged and marketed to consumers. Robert James, co-inventor (with wife Betty) of the Slinky (1945) was a naval mechanical engineer who worked on springs to stabilize ship mechanics.
Also odd is the choice to end the show on a utopian note with “Designing Better Worlds,” rather than a more analytical or questioning position. Our moment, in relation to concepts of childhood, is one of radical flux and seems hardly the culmination of a 20th-century dream. The section focuses on objects that, the wall text claims, “suggest children deserve better.” These include everything from a host of visionary playground designs to a set of collapsible, recyclable Nomadic furniture designed in the ‘70s to the “One Laptop Per Child” project, which seeks to make cheap, efficient laptop computers available to students. This is as close as the exhibition gets to approaching the online component of contemporary childhood (and this burgeoning, complex new element of childhood is likely part of the reason why the show’s focus ends in 2000).
Still, the pair of pricey Marrimekko Overalls displayed not far from a Unicef Inspired Gift poster shows how utopia might still be far on the horizon—hard to imagine even from atop the giant Tripp Trapp high chairs at the show’s end, where viewers can pretend that they never grew up.
'Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000' is on view at the Museum of Modern Art through November 5.