The 20th Century Was for Kids

A new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art shows how things made for children reflected and shaped a 100 years of culture—for better and for worse.

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Minka Podhájská's Series of Personifications of Childhood Misdeeds. (Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague)

The Museum of Modern Art has long toyed with displaying objects designed for children. But on July 29, MoMA throws open the playroom doors to the "Century of the Child," an exhibition of design for and about children. But it's not just kids' stuff: There are deeper meanings here. "It is something of a cliché to state that children are the future, but for modernist designers with a clear vision of the society and values they wanted to shape, children have been an obvious starting point," says curator Juliet Kinchin in an email. "In that sense, all design for children becomes political."

The exhibit shows that kids are "challenging, demanding clients," but also that they're easily brainwashed.

Over the last 100 years or so, the idea of the "modern child" was shaped by the same forces that shaped the rest of society: industrialization, urbanization, and consumerism. "It is natural that the point of transition between centuries focuses attention on the idea of new starts, and I have been struck by the way many people around 1900 talked in one breath about the new century, the new child, and new design," she says. "It's that convergence between modern childhood and design that makes the 20th the century of the child."

Toys and games are of course part of the exhibition, but furniture, architecture, and clothing are also featured prominently. And while the exhibit is ostensibly more for adults than children, it does contain interactive elements that engage all ages by juxtaposing materials produced by children's play with the designs of their elders. "In our selection there has been little distinction from the designer's point of view between learning and play, though children don't necessarily learn, or play, in the ways intended," Kinchin says. "Particularly in terms of creativity within the digital realm, [children] often seem to be ahead of the game."

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Frank Lloyd Wright is represented by his design of a playhouse kitchen. But did Wright consciously design it for children? "Some furniture by Wright could be seen as a miniaturized version of pieces for adults," Kinchin says. "He's perhaps a good example of a major designer who learned more from children (and innovative kindergarten teachers like his mother and aunts) than he gave back to them in terms of specific designs."

Comics and animation are further rich areas of visual experimentation that were initially directed at children but became central to mainstream design practices. They provide an example of how design that goes beyond its original intent to please children offers "a paradigm for modern design thinking in general," Kinchin says.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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