The Marginalian
The Marginalian

A Design History of Childhood

“Every child is an artist,” Picasso famously proclaimed. “Every child is a scientist,” Neil deGrasse Tyson reformulated. But, as it turns out, every child is also a designer — so argues Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000 (public library), the impressive companion book to the MoMA exhibition of the same title, which explores “children as design activists in their own right, pushing against imaginative and physical limitations and constantly re-creating the world as they see it, using whatever equipment they happen to have at hand.” Remarkably researched and lavishly illustrated, the large-format tome is titled after Swedish design reformer and social theorist Ellen Key’s seminal 1900 publication presaging a new era of focus on the rights and well-being of children. Through 100 years of toys, playgrounds, classrooms, clothing, furniture, posters, animation, books, and other ephemera, it covers such expansive and interrelated subjects as genetic engineering, the role of play in cultivating creativity, the importance of children in expanding 20th-century economies, the rise of comic strips, and the cultural significance of nostalgia.

MoMA curator of Architecture and Design Juliet Kinchin writes in the introductory essay, titled “Hide and Seek: Remapping Modern Design and Childhood”:

We have been periodically reminded how the forces of modernity shape design and childhood in ways that are extraordinary and exhilarating yet complex and contradictory. What has remained consistent, however, is the faith among designers in the power of aesthetic activity to shape everyday life. As an embodiment of what might be, children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real: they propel our thoughts forward. Their protean nature encourages us to think in terms of design that is flexible, inclusive, and imaginative.

Lorraine Schneider. ‘War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.’ 1966
Schneider, an artist and mother of four, created this poster for a print show at Pratt Institute in New York, out of concern that her eldest son would be drafted. The rough composition, with its simple sunflower and childlike scrawl, became the logo for Another Mother for Peace, an organization led in the present day by Lorraine’s daughter Carol, and went on to become one of the most ubiquitous protest images of the Vietnam War era. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Lewis Hine. Child in Carolina Cotton Mill. 1908
American photographer and sociologist Hine recorded children’s working lives on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee, an organization established in 1904 to alleviate the exploitation of children, with headquarters in New York. A source of cheap labor then as now, children in factories and sweatshops assisted in the process of churning out goods designed for markets that included their middle-class peers. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin examines children’s awkward placement in the historiography of modern design:

The stereotypical perception of children as sensual and intuitive sits uneasily with the critical discourse of intellectualism and rationality that surrounds heroic modernist architecture, but with the advent of postmodern and psychoanalytic approaches to academic studies, beginning in the 1970s, many innovations in children’s design have begun to attract the critical attention they deserve, particularly in relation to comics, animation, and video games.


Bringing children from the periphery to the forefront of our attention cuts across geographical, political, and stylistic demarcations in the mapping of modern design. … Children bring into focus how modern design has straddled high and low cultural practices, from comics to architecture and urban planning. They enable us to follow threads throughout the century that connect the most disparate and apparently contradictory tendencies.

Rudolf Steiner. ‘In mir ist Gott – Ich bin in Gott (God is in me – I am in God).’ 1924
This drawing indicates how Steiner, one of the most influential educational theorists of the twentieth-century, would illustrate school lessons and public lectures with rapid chalk sketches on a blackboard or sheets of black paper. By means of such instantaneous mark-making, he communicated his sense of thought as living, creative energy, and of the individual as part of larger metaphysical harmonies. Steiner established his first school in 1919 for children of employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. Within a decade Steiner schools had been established not only in Germany and his native Switzerland, but in Austria, Britain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States, where the first one opened in New York, on East 79th Street. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Lyonel Feininger. ‘The Kin-der-Kids’ from Chicago Sunday Tribune. April 29, 1906
The modern mass-circulation comic appeared in Europe and the United States in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that comics and animation – two art forms initially created for children – began to have a profound impact on modern visual culture. Feininger and Winsor McCay, the two great illustrators of American comics in the opening decades of the twentieth century, conceived of the comic strip as full-page layouts with radical and inventive experiments in scale, sequence, and format. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Like Steve Jobs, who famously proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things,” and Paula Scher, who likens creativity to a slot machine, and like other theorists of creative problem-solving, Kinchin emphasized this inherent pattern-recognition gift of the child mind, also manifested in the most impactful design for children:

Designers, like children, find patterns and make connections. The importance of pattern making and creative play with material things, for children and adults, as a route to understanding spatial relations and problem-solving, as well as creating a sense of the individual in relation to larger cosmic harmonies, comes up again and again in the twentieth century.

She cites the legendary Hungarian-born Bauhaus architect and designer Breuer:

When children play with building blocks, they discover that they fit together, because they are square. . . . Then, the child discovers that the blocks are empty, that the sides turn into walls, and that there is a roof and a structure . . . . That is when the child will indeed become an architect. Manager of voids and spaces, priest of geometry.

Vladimir Lebedev. Cover of ‘Vchera i segodnia (Yesterday and today)’ by Samuil Marshak. 1925
Lebedev’s philosophy toward children’s books was clear: they should be, in his words, ‘colorful, specific, concrete,’ and find a balance between sophistication and accessibility, high and low. Though he drew on the avant-garde languages of Cubism and Suprematism, he never fully abandoned figuration, offering a familiar anchor to children while introducing them to new visual modes. Likewise, the goal of his collaborator, writer Samuil Marshak, was to create a new children’s literature, one that nourished the mind in both content and form. Lebedev and Marshak, who began working together in 1924, created dozens of books, many so popular that they were issued in massive editions of 10,000 with reprints not far behind. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Advertisement for Gymbo School & Gym Shoes. 1930
This brochure advertising Gymbo shoes emphasizes the ‘absolute freedom’ given to every part of the foot by the rubber-soled canvas shoes that were required for pupils in most British schools in the 1930s. With medical experts and educators endorsing the beneficial effects of physical activity on academic performance as well as general health, schools began to pay greater attention to nurturing children’s bodies through movement and exercise. Innovations in children’s clothing soon followed, with designs for activewear to accommodate this new emphasis on freedom of movement. Girls in particular benefited from the increased mobility and encouragement to participate in sport or dance that challenged conventional constructions of femininity. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin points to the unburdened optimism of the child as a beacon of modernist thought:

Children, with their perception uncluttered by the baggage of social and cultural conventions, have long symbolized the visionary modernist focus of the future. In this respect they belong at the heart of utopian thought, and they inspire us to demand a different, better, brighter future.

Frankie Faruzza. Cover of the book ‘Children and the City,’ by Olga Adams. 1952
Adams, one of the best-known kindergarten teachers in the United States in the 1950s, initiated a classroom project called ‘Our City’ at the Laboratory School in Chicago to stimulate children’s appreciation of how cities worked. Following extensive discussion about how they interacted with and understood the city, the pupils imagined a model town, and then went on to develop their ideas into a cardboard community that they governed themselves. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Times Wide World Photos. ‘A Famous School of Dance Has a Birthday,’ class at an Isadora Duncan dance school. 1929
A quasimystical belief in the psychological and therapeutic power of expressive movement inspired pioneers of modern dance education in Europe and the United States, among them Isadora Duncan and Margaret Morris, each of whom established private schools for children. Classes were frequently conducted outdoors, and emphasized a natural athleticism. Touring troupes of scantily clad girls trained by Duncan performed with bare feet and loose hair, causing a public sensation before and after World War I. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

“The skills of the 21st century need us to create scholars who can link the unlinkable,” science educator Ainissa Ramirez argued in her manifesto for saving science education, and Kinchin sees an equally pressing urgency in how the intersection of design and education evolves in the future:

It now seems as urgent to drastically shift our conception of education and modern design as it did in 1900. What is necessary for this to happen … is a new generation equipped with new ways of thinking. … The need to foster the young child’s innate capacity for divergent thinking — the ability to come up with lots of different answers — brings us back to the early-twentieth-century pioneers of the kindergarten movement and the concept of open-ended play as a strategy for learning and design innovation … If there is one lesson that adults should learn from children, it is that at a time of environmental and economic crisis, play is a crucial point of connection to the physical and imaginative world. We need to give ourselves time and space for play, space in which the unpredictable can happen.

Froebel Gift 2. 1890
Intent on fostering the curiosity and creativity of young minds, Froebel devised a series of twenty playthings, which he called ‘Gifts.’ These objects formed the core of his pioneering model of early childhood education, anchoring sessions of play that were either directed by teachers or instigated by the children themselves. Gifts one through ten included crocheted balls in different colors, wooden building blocks, geometric shapes, and steel rings that could be arranged in numerous temporary configurations. Gifts eleven through twenty provided the materials for focused activities, such as multicolored sheets of paper for cutting, weaving, and folding. By the early twentieth century, this system was so popular that Froebel Gifts were being manufactured on a large scale in both Europe and the United States. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack. ‘Optical Color-Mixer.’ 1924
Experience with toy design, often as a result of idealistic attempts to bring up their own children in a new and creative manner, was common among staff and students of the progressive Bauhaus school. These spinning disks, also known as the Optische Farbmischer (Optical color mixer), adhered to the emerging Bauhaus aesthetic of simple geometric forms and unmodulated primary colors, which was due in part to a method of teaching inspired by the kindergarten movement. Toys like the spinning disks and Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s construction blocks sold well, providing an important source of income for the new institution. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

The introduction opens with a beautiful quote from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (free ebook):

The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’ For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed: the spirit now wills his own will.

Nigel Henderson. Untitled, from Chisenhale Road Series. 1951
In 1953 architects Peter and Alison Smithson collaborated with photographer Nigel Henderson on this influential visual statement of their new approach to urban planning. As seen in this mapping of urban experience – from house to street, and district to city – it is children at play who embody the Smithsons’ guiding principle of social connectivity that underpins the concept of a ‘cluster city.’ The Smithsons were critical of the prevailing modernist orthodoxy of the rational, zoned city; instead they searched for new architectural equivalents to the more intuitive unfolding of spatial relationships that they observed in children’s play. Their approach brought them together with Aldo van Eyck and other dissenting architects within CIAM. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Werner John. ‘Kinder Verkehrs Garten (Children’s traffic garden),’ poster advertising a children’s traffic school. 1959
The graphic simplicity of John’s poster design succinctly references both the abstract forms of children’s construction toys and modern styles of road signage being introduced internationally. In the 1950s and ’60s, the proliferation of motorized vehicles was creating concern about children’s public safety and liberty. One response was to merge traffic and play in the form of children’s traffic schools. For play advocates, however, the lack of public space allocated to children and the overbearing presence of cars were indications of adults’ lack of respect for children’s freedom and basic human rights. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Walt Disney with original aerial-view painting of Disneyland, produced for ABC Television. October 1954
Walt Disney introduced Disneyland to the public with this bird’s-eye rendering by Ellenshaw, an artist and designer. The park, which opened in 1955, was a physical extension of Disney’s cinematic and television projects; it was originally intended as a kiddieland adjacent to the Burbank television studios but grew to become one of the most iconic statements of twentieth-century American popular culture. Disney planned the park as a miniature city that followed the layout of the world’s fairs of the 1930s, with a nostalgic Main Street based on his boyhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri, linking four distinct areas of what he called his ‘magic kingdom’ – Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland, and Tomorrowland. Together these elements contrasted a sentimental image of nineteenth-century America with the modern, exotic, and futuristic. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Boys in a Glasgow back court show off their Christmas presents, which include astronaut suits and Space Hoppers. 1970
Outer space, a new frontier, was sufficiently vast and mysterious to allow designers and toy manufacturers near-complete freedom of imagination and creation. One rather enigmatic but popular product was Mettoy’s Space Hopper. These bright orange vinyl bouncing balls, two feet in diameter, with kangaroolike faces and handles that resembled horns, are said to have been inspired by children bouncing on fishing buoys in Norway. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin concludes with a conception of the child as a sort of antidote to the pretense of the present:

For designers seeking to reconcile in their work the tensions and ambiguities of modern life, children seemed an inexhaustible source of renewal, evoking both a paradise lost in the remote past and the future possibility of an ideal city or state. … In directing their attention to children, many educators and designers sought to recover an authenticity of expression that they felt had been lost with the innovations of modern life.

Century of the Child goes on to explore the paradoxical role of children as both targets of consumer culture and cogs in its machinery by providing cheap industrial labor, tracing how the New Art movement catalyzed a new culture of relating to childhood alongside an evolving conception of pedagogy, covering such cultural revolutions as the rise of kindergarten, the golden age of the playground, playtime in the avant-garde era, and the body politics of the child. Complement it with Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, another fantastic and mind-expanding companion to an eponymous MoMA exhibition by Paola Antonelli.

Published March 18, 2013




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