“Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000,” which opens on July 29 and runs through Nov. 5, looks at the symbiotic relationship between children and the artists who designed for them.
“We’re showing the two-way, very dynamic relationship between new concepts of childhood and children and new ways of thinking about design process and creativity,” said Juliet Kichin, curator in MoMA’s architecture and design department. Both children and artists share traits of openness and even disobedience, making them natural and empathetic collaborators. Kichin said working for children “gave the avant-garde unique freedom and creativity.”
More than 500 objects from 20 countries, many from MOMA’s own collections, are included in the exhibit. Some items have never been seen before in the United States, including Scottish designer Jessie Marion King’s 1912-13 dollhouse made of painted wood and leather and her “Frog Prince” nursery panel.
Utopian dreams and dark reality
The exhibit’s first point of reference is Ellen Key’s 1900 book “Century of the Child.” The Swedish design reformer and social theorist looked at the 20th century as a period of intensified focus and progressive thinking about the crucial importance of the rights, development, and well-being of children.
The exhibit looks back 100 years, examining individual and collective visions for children ranging from utopian dreams to dark realities.
Kindergarten materials based on the theories of Friedrich Froebel recognize the widening influence of the 19th century kindergarten movement. Clay and wood play bricks painted by children at Francesco Randone’s free art school in Rome and the educational materials conceived by Maria Montessori reflect a shift in educational methods and avant-garde artistic experimentation.
The exhibit includes children’s books collected by Alfred H. Barr on a 1927-28 trip to the Soviet Union, before he was appointed MoMA’S founding director.
“When Barr was thinking about the development of modernist art and design he went on this life-changing visit to the Soviet Union and chose to buy children’s books,” Kichin said.
Familiar objects such as Lego building bricks, Erno Rubik’s Cube, Etch-a-Sketch and Slinky are part of the exhibit, along with furniture by Alvar Aalto, a chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, school desks by Arne Jacobsen and Jean Prouve and playground equipment by Isamu Noguchi. Kichin and O’Connor said they particularly enjoyed the painted wood series personifying childhood misdeeds done in 1930 by Minka Podhajska and lent by the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague.
“The collection includes the child who can’t sit still and the one who eats too much, another who thinks too much; and the one, wearing glasses, who reads too much,” O’Connor said. Another section focuses on the Cold War race to outer space. “One of the amazing things that design can do is take you on a journey,” Kichin said. “And with children, they’re halfway there already, and design helps propel them that bit further.”
Idealized posters of Soviet youth by El Lissitzky and Aleksandr Rodchenko are included. A US Farm Security Administration Depression era photo by Ben Shahn shows “Children of Destitute Mountaineer, Arkansas, 1935.” Shomei Tomatsu’s 1961 photo, “Girl Who Had Experienced the Atom Bomb Explosion While Still in her Mother’s Womb,” shows the horrors of war, along with children’s drawings of their villages being bombed during the Spanish Civil War.
A different nightmare ensnared Bauhaus-trained artist, kindergarten teacher and art therapist Friedl Dicker, who was gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau with 36 of her young students. Two of her works and a collage by Ruth Guttmannova, created at Theresienstadt concentration camp before her deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau, are also part of the show.