From the Slinky to the Sims, A New MoMA Show Surveys the Designs That Made the "Century of the Child"

(Photo © Janelle Zara)

NEW YORK — Although we were all once children, somewhere between puberty and college most of us forgot what that experience was like. When MoMA's exhibition "Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000" opens July 29, it will serve as a reminder, as it surveys the path children's design took from its roots in the early 20th century all the way through the creation of the Sims. It reflects the evolving image society has had of its little ones, how design has followed suit, and what LEGOs have in common with Tetris.

"We'd be kidding ourselves to think all modern design for children was beneficent," Architecture & Design curator Juliet Kinchin said during Tuesday's exhibition preview, emphasizing that as political agendas were a driving mechanism in modernist design for grown-ups, design for children was no different. The social conditions that plagued adults trickled down to the choices they made for their children, and to reflect this, the show is divided into different moods in history, which at times veer from the lighthearted and progressive into the manipulative or the dystopian: In the section “Children and the Body Politic,” for example, the show takes a darker turn to present propaganda aimed at winning the hearts and minds of youngsters during both World Wars, whether as cartoon posters or a silver zeppelin-shaped toy.

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors pass the preposterously large "Maxi" table and chair set (1972), a design by Norwegian Peter Opsvik that simulates the experience of living in an oversized world. Visitors continue on to a room with black-and-white footage of a children’s P.E. class projected onto the wall. The film documents the post-industrial, progressive late 19th- to early 20th-century period during which children emerged from the factories, when German philosopher Friederich Froebel introduced the concept of kindergarten, and society began recognizing childhood as a "distinct phase of life" to be fostered. Architects and designers began to pay attention to the amount of air and light children received in their schoolrooms, while artists applied their avant-garde visions to playthings: Gerrit Riteveld made wheelbarrows and high chairs with de Stijl blocks of color and form, while Sophie Taeuber-Arp made knights and sentries from folklore into puppets (however creepy and spider-like).

Just beyond the somber black wall of the "Children and the Body Politic," a bright yellow room explodes in primary colors, focusing on the regenerative postwar period. It was then that Charles and Ray Eames started making their chairs of molded plywood in miniature, stained in a palette of yellows, magentas, and blues; a small red one with a heart-shaped cutout in its back support sits under glass. It's also the period when our enduring classics first appeared: the Slinky, the Etch-a-Sketch, and the all-time classic, the LEGO building block.

The survey continues through the Cold War-era proliferation of space-related toys (including a NASA astronaut’s jumpsuit tailored for little ones from 1988); the period from the '60s onward when advertisers came to recognize children as autonomous consumers; the pastiche of "Pee-wee's Playhouse"; design as a means of therapetic and humanitarian relief; and video games as modern-day tools for learning spatial relations and problem-solving. The exhibition title and concept spring from social theorist Ellen Key’s 1900 book, "Century of the Child," a manifesto calling for recognition of the the rights of children as members of society. Now, more than 100 years later, we live in a world of playdates, Happy Meals, "iCarly," and Architect Barbie, thanks in no small part to Key’s contributions — for better or for worse. 

"Century of the Child" is on view at the MoMA from July 29 through November 5. To see our most nostalgic highlights, click the slide show