A Brilliant Exhibition Explores A Century Of Designs For Children

This is your last chance to see Century of the Child–the first large-scale look at childhood as a source of modern design thinking.

Today, as soon as a child can form a sentence, we enroll her in school, ply her with knowledge, and give her enough space to explore her creativity and athletic talents. That wasn’t always the case. In fact, that progressive view of child development is a distinctly 20th-century philosophy–one that is delightfully documented through more than 500 objects showcased in Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000, an exhibition at MoMA that closes on November 5.


[Wooden teaching materials commissioned by Maria Montessori in the 1920s.]

The title of the show is borrowed from Ellen Key’s 1900 Century of the Child, a manifesto for change that promoted universal rights and the well-being of children as the primary mission of the next hundred years. That was the starting point for educational reformers at the turn of the century who regarded children as, according to the exhibition notes, “the living symbol of the sweeping changes that ushered in the birth of the modern.” Indeed, throughout the last century, children were seen as the embodiment of the future–to be molded into the next great architects and artists or the next group of ideologues and consumers.

The first section of the seven-part show covers the period of 1900 through World War I, when leading designers and intellectuals (many of them women, including Maria Montessori) in emergent artistic centers in Europe and the United States emphasized the child’s creative process and her investigation of materials and abstract forms. Highlights include designs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Glasgow), stools painted by children at Francesco Randone’s School of Art (Rome), and Lyonel Feininger’s comics (Chicago).

[A rocket manufactured in 1960 Budapest.]

The subsequent two sections leading up to World War II look at how avant-garde groups and movements idealized the experience of the child. Curators Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor write: “Two tendencies in particular can be seen to connect concepts of childhood and the modern: One represented an attempt to recapture a childlike, untutored attitude toward the world, while the other sought to strip away extraneous elements to get back to the purest forms of human experience and language.” Stimulating the body as well as the mind became a priority, with curricula encouraging both physical education (through dance, gymnastics, and sport) and self-expression (through interactive books and toys).

But children also became the unwitting icons and audience of political propaganda from the 1920s through World War II, state-run and political youth movements recruited designers to create everything from uniforms and posters to built environments for clubs in the Soviet Union and children’s colonies in Fascist Italy.

Political extremism gave way to a relative egalitarian approach to design, marked by the “reappearance of children in public urban spaces and modern, less formal school environments after the wartime experience of confinement or evacuation.” After World War II, playthings were reexamined for the covert social lessons they taught children, and designers entered the debate to promote “good toys,” those that were safe, nonviolent, and responsible (think Lego and Slinky). It wasn’t long, however, before children were identified not as malleable innocents, as they were in the ’50s, but as parent-manipulating consumers.

The child-as-buyer is the image that carries through to today; children are perpetually bombarded with ads for the latest gadgets with the newest gewgaws. Rather than overhauling toys for the Western market, many designers have turned their attention to leveraging technology to help the developing world (One Laptop per Child is a prime example). But after a trip through Century of the Child, I came away thinking about how much our kids might benefit from playing with Montessori’s physical wooden blocks–at least before they’re introduced to the virtual sport of launching angry birds.


If you haven’t already visited the exhibition, I heartily recommend you do so, but you don’t have much time–the show closes next Monday. Go here for more info.

About the author

A former editor at such publications as WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fast Company, Belinda Lanks has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, Interior Design, and ARTnews.