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."

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.

Likewise, famous experimental books are included—El Lissitzky's Scarecrow and Piet Zwart's Het Boek—that are arguably targeted over a child's head. "Kokoshka's children's book Die Traumenden Knaben of 1908 is full of sex and violence and did not have great kid appeal, but it is nevertheless a great and provocative work of a true enfant terrible," Kinchin says. "And for boundary-pushing in the realm of children's book design I immediately think of Polish designers Stefan and Francesca Themerson's in the 1930s and a book like The Table that Went For a Walk, or the amazing postwar books by Bruno Munari that turned reading into a truly interactive, textural, and layered experience. "

Indeed, books like those show that children are "challenging, demanding clients," as Kinchin puts it. But the exhibit also explores their susceptibility to being brainwashed through design, vividly exposed in children's propaganda created by Nazis, Soviets, and Italian Fascists. "Toys, games and uniforms are probably more effective in helping to cultivate a sense of belonging and active identification with a political ideology," Kinchin says, acknowledging a language of manipulation aimed directly at children.

And the exhibit is decidedly mixed in its portrayal of whether the "century of the child" was altogether good for children. Modern design has, in many ways, "instrumentalized" kids, Kinchin says. On the assembly line, for instance, brutal child labor practices virtually enslaved the young. Today, kids are manipulated to obsessively want what comes off that assembly line. "Most committed modernists in the first half of the 20 century openly deplored the cheapening effects of poorly designed goods, setting up a tension between a view of 'good' design and popular taste," she says. "This high modernist view has been critiqued as elitist, but the problem of producing and consuming a lot of rubbish is still with us." And nowadays, Kinchin points out, "we are more conscious about child safety—and there is far more rigorous product testing—but risk-averse attitudes are in danger of limiting children's experience, creativity, and their ability to push the boundaries."

After all the cautionary notes have been sounded, however, the fact remains that toys like modern doll houses and Playmobil exist to show children how to control their environments. Or as Kinchin says, "most design for children is concerned with creating a sense of physical or psychological safety and control." This may be the single most important, overriding dynamic regarding design for children from the early 20th century to today: Adults create new products for kids and kids, in turn, create new worlds.

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