Fear of Fun: A History of Modernist Design for Children

By Alexandra LangeOctober 6, 2012

Fear of Fun: A History of Modernist Design for Children

Century of the Child by Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O'Connor

LAST AUGUST, I WAS WALKING the Brooklyn Heights Promenade with my then three-year-old son, when he paused in front of a plaque showing the Manhattan skyline as it was, with the twin towers intact. Someone had hung an inexpensive wreath around the plaque that caught his attention. What’s this for? he asked. I could have said, I don’t know, but I realized the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 was weeks away. I wanted him to hear something about it from me first, not a classmate or a teacher.

It is in memory of those towers, I said. There was a terrible fire, and they fell down. Were there people in them? he asked. Yes, I said. Did they die? Yes, I said. Why didn’t they send the fire trucks? They did send the fire trucks, but they couldn’t help. The fire was too big. He was quiet for a moment, and I questioned my parental judgment in telling him even this limited account.

Then he said: Superman should have come to help the firemen. Superman could have saved the people. And he kept walking.

Remembering the conversation later, I realized Superman was designed to do just that. Superman always catches the falling man, fights enemies, pushes the toppling building back into place. Comic books are suffused with sadness (what could be more shocking to a child than the Batman origin story?), but children look to superheroes to transcend their own limitations and those of the world around them. In this instance, Superman eased my son’s fear when he learned that even firemen were mortal; Superman became the metaphorical safe place. And Superman saved me, too, from fear that I had traumatized my son.

I had not thought about that day on the promenade in months, until a visit this summer to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit Century of the Child: Growing By Design, 1900 – 2000 (through November 5, 2012) brought it back. The exhibition and its catalog, organized and edited by MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin and curatorial assistant Aidan O’Connor, use design for children as a jumping-off point for a discussion of many of modernism’s larger themes: education, health, consumerism, war, and the role of women in the work place. The exhibition and catalog both follow a rough chronology from the beginning of the twentieth century, when progressive circles focused on the education, dress and health of children as means of developing modern men and women, to the present day, when such concerns recur in design for the developing world. (The “crisis” for first world children, as the catalog notes, now comes from too much food, medication and, especially electronic, toys.)

Despite the utopian bent of the exhibition’s opening galleries, where building blocks and linen smocks rule, as one moves through Century of the Child, there is a certain melancholic undertow. Toys, schools, books, films, and playgrounds reveal themselves in turn as vehicles of adult propaganda or coping mechanisms to paper over trauma. The show makes clear that design responds to needs, but it also fills different kinds of voids. Many of the artifacts on display seem to have been designed as much to save adults from the workaday, violent, consumerist realities of the twentieth century as they were for child’s play.

The first glass case you see as you enter Century of the Child is filled with shapes — wooden shapes, paper shapes, wool shapes — all examples of educational materials created by educator Friedrich Froebel, who originated the concept of the Kindergarten in 1837 and later coined the term. Froebel called his objects “gifts,” in order to emphasize the open-ended spirit in which an adult should give them to a child. Each gift was intended to teach young students through tactile experience rather than rote memorization. Gifts one through 10, which include crocheted balls, wooden blocks, and metal rings, could be stacked and linked and rearranged, but always maintained their original form. Gifts 11 through 20, called “occupations,” present focused activities requiring change, like weaving, folding and cutting multicolored sheets of paper, or joining sticks to create rudimentary 3D structures. The gorgeous samples displayed (some by students, some by teachers) are more reminiscent of first-year design school exercises than kindergarten crafts; the endless variation of square, circle, rectangle, triangle, suggest quilts and Joseph Albers, restaurant layouts and snowflakes.

In emerging turn-of-the-nineteenth-century centers like Glasgow, Chicago, Rome and Vienna, designing for children and designing like children were both seen as ways to get back to fundamentals. New art schools in all of these places were built on the same spatial principles as the new kindergartens, and several, like Cranbrook and the first Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany included early childhood education as part of their pedagogical program.

In Glasgow, the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, the artist Margaret MacDonald, designed a playroom for their 1902 House for an Art Lover that reads as an enchanted garden, with indoor electric light poles ornamented like tiny trees. From Vienna, Josef Hoffmann’s undersize tea service has the same signature pattern of squares seen on his adult china designed for the Wiener Werkstatte, the artists’ collective that also included Oskar Kokoschka, Koloman Moser, Dagobert Peche and Josef Urban. Frank Lloyd Wright’s dotty stained-glass windows for the 1912-13 Avery Coonley Playhouse, recognizable from a thousand postcards, were inspired by those same Froebel gifts, which his mother gave him.

One sees a great continuity in these first decades of the 20th century between design for children and design for adults, and the creative work done by children and by adults. The exhibition presents the sense that early modernists even looked enviously on children’s ability to create without preconception, and their potential to live their whole lives as modern beings (it is with that same wistfulness that adult tech writers look today on their “digital native” children). This romantic vision, however, is countered by Kinchin’s bleaker observation about the early 1900s that “children were both the targets of an expanding consumer culture and exploited as a source of cheap industrial labor.” Future children would be free-thinking, but first they would have to be liberated from the factories. In this vein, block sets like Hoffmann’s Factory (c.1920) or Czech designer Ladislav Sutnar’s Factory Town (1926) have a double edge: they acknowledge that the contemporary built environment is industrial rather than rural, while simultaneously offering a sense of agency in it.

Many of the objects in the exhibition’s first room cling to an old-fashioned quaintness, using traditional colors and materials, but the toys and furniture in the second room, titled “Avant-Garde Playtime,” present childhood as the primary-colored and geometric Wonderland we are more familiar with today. This gallery features work by De Stijl designer Gerrit Rietveld, best known for his 1924 Schroeder House in Utrecht, whose facades are arranged as a series of abstract compositions of sliding planes, and whose interiors are an early model of the open plan. Less discussed, though, are his client Truus Schroeder’s three children, or Rietveld’s own six. Rietveld spent a number of years studying how to make a sturdy furniture joint from three connected stick-like members (a process which, Kinchin notes in the catalog, resembles the constructive play imagined by Froebel and Montessori). He used his final, scaffold-like solution both for his celebrated Red Blue Chair (1923) and, earlier, for a high chair (1919) shown in the exhibition. Kinchin argues that the De Stijl movement embraced kindergarten-style play as a design technique, and that Rietveld was particularly creative in designing for children. Previous histories of De Stijl might have treated the high chair and Rietveld’s charming yellow wheelbarrow (1923) as a minor work; in this context they are taken as seriously as his furniture for grown-ups.

The way Rietveld’s diminutive pieces have previously been treated raises broader questions about who has designed for children, and how seriously that work has been considered. If children are the future, whose hands, and whose buildings, do we put them in? Rietveld’s unexamined role as a father is one thing, but in the text for the next section of the exhibition, called “Light, Air, Health,” Kinchin and O’Connor highlight a truth one might have suspected — many pioneering female architects and designers were shunted, willingly or not, toward design for the home, for schools, and for children. Austrian architect Margarete Lihotsky, for instance, is known for the 1926 Frankfurt Kitchen that was the centerpiece of Kinchin and O’Connor’s 2010-11 MoMA exhibition Counter Space. But after her work in Frankfurt, she went on to design standardized children’s clubs, kindergartens and nursery schools for the Soviet Union and Turkey in the 1930s, and Bulgaria in the 1940s. Her focus was on the best layouts for teaching, layouts to limit the spread of infection, and the dissemination of construction guidelines specific to children of different ages.

In England, Mary Crowley, one of a handful of female architects working in the 1930s, collaborated on the plans for a pre-fab, expandable nursery school with Erno Goldfinger. Their design featured an open activity space with a wrap-around ribbon of windows, and full-height doors open to the outside. During the war, Crowley and Goldfinger, along with modernist toy manufacturers Marjorie and Paul Abbatt, suggested changes to Britain’s temporary housing and evacuation camps to make them more workable for mothers and children — particularly in including safe places to play. Lihotsky, as Kinchin writes, “repeatedly returned to the shortage of childcare facilities, which she saw as a hindrance to women of all classes wishing to lead fuller lives outside the home.” Women like Lihotsky and Crowley made the best of the professional specialization they were given, seeing the connection between better options for children and better options for women. Neither had her own children — unlike Rietveld, they weren’t embedded in childhood, and one could make the reverse-sexist argument that that allowed them to focus on more global problems than the high chair.

While the careers of Lihotsky and Crowley were shaped by World War II, Century of the Child addresses the impact of wars on children most explicitly in the third gallery, on a large, double-sided black wall. In the related part of the catalog, Kinchin writes: “This chapter brings into focus a recurrent paradox in 20th century design for children: the simultaneous desire to protect the youngest and most vulnerable members of society from the cares of adult existence while also projecting on to them the ideological values belonging to that same adult world.” It is striking to see famous examples of graphic design like Alexander Rodchenko’s 1930 photograph Pioneer Girl re-politicized here not just as modernist image-making, but as a specific representation of the Communist Young Pioneers, who were asked to “exercise leadership of backward and recalcitrant adults.” In the photograph, the girl is shot from below, emphasizing the firmness of her chin and brow, reflecting the Pioneers’ emphasis on the authority of youth.

Among the visually arresting objects nearby are a set of 1930s Japanese children’s kimonos patterned with warplanes and an adorable cartoon dog. This dog, first published in manga in 1931, was known as Norakuro, and proved as enduring a character as Mickey Mouse in Japan, according to the catalog. Unlike Mickey, however, Norakuro was part of a “fierce dogs brigade,” and participated in battles. These kimonos layer on the paradox: a traditional garment decorated with twentieth century warplanes and licensed characters, a cartoon that models warlike behavior rather than a retreat from violence. Such dementedly cute characters are not exclusive to Japan, either. The exhibit also includes a copy of Roald Dahl’s 1943 book for Disney, Gremlins, in which anthropomorphized British critters, displaced from their woodland habitat by an aircraft factory, become Nazi bomber saboteurs. The critters, clearly stand-ins for the threatened children of England, get to be tiny heroes. But both sides seem implicated in the end of their rural idyll: the factory is British, even if the bombs being dropped are not. On another front, training future imperialists was also made into an agreeable affair by the colonialist board game, Tombola di Etiopia (c.1937), “which rewarded knowledge of the history and geography of the Italian empire,” and “encouraged children to learn about and vicariously win the contest for Ethiopia.”

Following this dark period, the exhibition dwells for a moment in consumerist, candy-colored light. Here, in a large, multi-colored exhibition case, are the American toys and games from mid-century. Freedom from fear expressed in a buying spree. There are LEGOs and the Eames Hang-It-All, tin Ford cars and an abstract, bentwood Creative Playthings rocker. Charles and Ray Eames’ sprightly Toccata for Toy Trains, a filmed tribute to the artistry of miniature locomotives and stories children tell themselves with them, plays on a small screen. Around the corner, Mary Blair’s concept artwork (1963) for Disney’s “It’s A Small World” ride, created for the 1964 World’s Fair, which (like the song of the same name) has the children of the world (represented now by animatronic, multi-ethnic dolls) singing in harmony. The shapes and colors and sounds here are happy ones, but the moment is fleeting. Diagonally across the room hangs Andreas Gursky’s 1999 photograph Toys ‘R’ Us featuring a bleak big-box landscape with that multi-color logo under a haze of utility wires. The juxtaposition suggests the bitter end of buying your way to happiness: no more singing children, no more public realm, just private credit card charges.

Around the edges of the toys, more equivocal, unbranded postwar play spaces appear: playgrounds. In Amsterdam, architect Aldo Van Eyck built hundreds of new playgrounds in leftover spaces (some in lots formerly occupied by the houses of Holland’s deported Jews), making sure to leave them open to passers-by. The children needed to play, but the adults also needed to see them playing as a sign of urban rebirth. In London, Lady Allen of Hurtwood crusaded to reclaim British bomb sites by designating them “adventure playgrounds.” Kinchin writes, “Lady Allen felt these spaces, by helping children to process and interpret the rubble, had the potential to repair the physical and psychological damage caused by war.” All the reconstruction, Allen suggested, need not be carried out by adults. Olga Adams, a kindergarten teacher at the Laboratory School in Chicago, had a similar idea. She created a classroom project called Our City (a book was published in 1952) engaging children in analyzing, imagining, and building a democratically-run model town.

It is frustrating that the curators chose not to place these bold urban ideas in closer proximity to a series of models of designer playgrounds and equipment, dating from the 1960s to the present. Recess, how to play and how much to play, are hotly contested questions in contemporary design and education. It would have been a service to see formal ideas about outdoor play develop (or not) over time, to put Van Eyck’s hundreds of postwar play spaces next to the largely unbuilt sculptural ideas of Isamu Noguchi, because it is especially in playgrounds that one sees a continuity with past and present-day design concerns. Consider the anarchic exploration of play in the 1968 Moderna Museet, Stockholm exhibition The Model: A Model for a Qualitative Society, described by O’Connor as follows:

Completely unfettered, children played, built, and painted the walls in a chaotic tangle of raw energy, complete with loudspeakers pumping music from turntables operated by the children themselves. Few adults dared enter this creative anarchy; most of them, a mix of parents, artists, and psychologists, watching the action from a distance through live video feed, on screens in the museum’s theater.

Coming near the end of Century of the Child, with its encyclopedic approach, one realizes The Model is its unacknowledged opposite. Liability aside, the embodied polemic of the Stockholm exhibition suggests more room for play at the MoMA might have been a nice touch. (If the National Building Museum has a LEGO pit, why not MoMA? What about installing one of Colin Greenly’s 1967 Wishbone Houses in the Sculpture Garden?) Century of the Child is inspiring in its willingness to upend old value systems and take play seriously, to engage with the paradoxes of a design century that, in so many ways, has not succeeded in protecting children from terror, but as an exhibition it fails to take some of its own advice.

In the last gallery, there is a quote from Pat Kane’s 2004 book, The Play Ethic that indicates that the model of children continues to represent creativity for adults:

“Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the industrial age — our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value.” Kane argues that, as the line between private and professional lives has become blurred, so has the definition of productivity. In order to be a good worker in the new economy, adults need more time that isn’t managed or quantified, though the results can be. Kane writes, “The group at play thrives only when everybody participates, so frustrations are reduced, and team coherence and direction are more solid.” In many ways he is describing the current, idealized state of affairs for tech companies in Silicon Valley, where employees can take sabbaticals, play ping pong, use a band saw at their place of work, and where all their meetings are in glass-walled conference rooms. What productivity looks like and acts like is being transformed, and dot-coms preach the rhetoric of creative collisions. Century of the Child shows us that this reification of the childhood state as the font of inspiration is nothing new, and neither is the idea of using play as a means to an end.

If I ran Facebook, I would suggest they buy an edition of Philip Worthington’s Shadow Monsters (2004) immediately. Shadow Monsters, which closes the show, looks at first like an illuminated wall, inviting the visitor to make a hand into a bird, a monkey, a crocodile. But offer one gesture and it is swiftly embellished, as Worthington adds sound effects, teeth, spines, claws, dots and dashes to turn even a wave into a creature. You are the wild thing, as excited by your surprise powers as Superman. I found myself trying to teach someone else’s child to make eyes on the top of her head, and following the lead of my own son. That kind of escape gets harder and harder to find, and as Century of the Child shows, the games we play are often far from free. In Worthington’s shadows, though, adults are kids again, and kids can be the wild things.


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LARB Contributor

Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Architectural Record, Dwell, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times. She is the author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012).  She is co-author, with Jane Thompson, of Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle, 2010). She teaches architecture criticism in the D-Crit Program at the School of Visual Arts.


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