It takes a certain kind of artist couple to see Romanian politics in a project inspired by their toddler son—and to see some futility, or at least room for improvement, in kids at play in a park. "Our first idea [for] the wooden toys came some time ago, watching a few kids playing alone in a park, surrounded by a lot of useless and senseless objects," Monotremu tells Co.Design about their design of Minitremu, a series of three-dimensional stackable blocks that, in certain configurations, take on the elegant proportions of Constantin Brancusi’s sculptural work. Only this is Brancusi reimagined for children, specifically his "Endless Column" and "Table of Silence" in the form of simple and colorful objects—meaningful objects—that are a serious upgrade to the plastic detritus observed in the park.
The modular playset draws on a rich heritage of high-minded design and toys, including those some of the great designers and architects played with as kids or created as adults. Both Frank Lloyd Wright and his Swiss-Franco rival Le Corbusier were reared on Froebel "gifts" and other forms of constructed play. (Neither received college degrees.) Famous Bauhaus apprentice Alma Siedhoff-BuscherIn designed a suite of children’s toys informed by the school’s pedagogical principles, favoring primary colors, simple geometries and abstractions.
By midcentury, Ray and Charles Eames lamented that society had "lost the knack of making real toys," leading them to try to rehabilite the craft.
Monotremu were perhaps channeling the Eames’s urge to redesign had they been the designer couple sitting on that park bench that day. But for Monotremu, the knack for making real toys came with their deep sense of connection with Brancusi, with whom they share a Romanian heritage. Brancusi believed in an aesthetic agenda that pushed the designers to reconsider the materials of their own playthings. "If Brancusi tried to reach at the ‘essence of things’ through natural elements like stone, wood, and metals, using plastics we’ve probably reached nothing," the pair explain. Their toys, then, would be wrought from wood, which they painted a vibrant colors to offset the stark minimalism of the forms, which followed the examples of Froebel’s blocks and the Bauhaus dolls, high design for low-to-the-ground children.
The reference to Brancusi also imbued the project with political dimensions. Recently, the reigning political parties in Romania have co-opted Brancusi—who developed as an artist in Paris and resided there for the majority of his life—as a distinctly Romanian hero. There have even been campaigns to rename some of his works, Monotremu say.
"One of our first goals [with Minitremu] was to de-institutionalize Brancusi and bring him toward a tangible dimension for kids." By doing so, the designers say they paid tribute to Brancusi’s greatest quality, his "universality." They do, however, acknowledge the difficulties of translating Brancusi’s formidable oeuvre to a younger generation, or that the political implications of post-Communist Romania don’t necessarily translate to toddlers. Children always lose interest in toys that "do nothing," they explain, "even if they’re coming from prodigious artists."