“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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