A beaming child in a puffy jacket dangles from a stark housing block’s concrete wall in a black-and-white 1973 photo by Jens S. Jensen. Blown up to a giant scale at the entrance to the fifth floor galleries at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the image’s contrasting playfulness and severe architecture mark the entrance to the exhibition Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000. It’s joined by a 1927 film of a small child piloting a motorized wheel contraption—the kind of dangerous fun that would make your mother nervous—and an oversized table and chair set by Peter Opsvik from 1972 that renders grown-up visitors child-sized. Together they set the tone for a huge and kinetic show, which opened on Sunday and runs through November 5. The exhibition of more than 500 objects created for and inspired by children traces the line where the aesthetics and ideologies of 20th-century design intersected with changing ideas about childhood.
The thoroughly researched and playfully presented exhibition moves chronologically, beginning with galleries that examine a pedagogical break from rigid 19th-century education and to emerging models that valued the idea of an untamed, spontaneous childhood. A 1904 perspective drawing for a dramatically open and light-filled Glasgow school by Charles Rennie MacKintosh joins photos documenting the Kindergarten movement in Germany in the first decade of the 20th century and a set of brightly colored Montessori teaching materials from the 1920s.