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.
From there, the show follows a co-evolution in which avant-garde designers draw on this new ideal of childhood emphasizing unadulterated creative energy in the simple shapes and bold colors of Modernism, which in turn, find their way into furniture, toys, printed material, and other objects designed to delight children. A set of building blocks from 1940-43 designed by Ladislav Sutnar invites kids to construct a Corbusian village complete with outsized conical smokestacks protruding from factories. Other highlights include John Rideout and Harold Van Doren’s 1930 airplane-inspired scooter, a “Modernist Dollhouse” from 1938, a blocky 1944-45 Walking Horse by Charles and Ray Eames, Libuše Niklová’s elongated toy figures from 1964, and Luigi Colani’s eye-popping 1972 Zocker Chair.
By the time the exhibition moves into the 1990s, the long-entrenched aesthetic of the earlier work gets thrown in the blender and reconstituted as colorfully giddy Postmodern kitsch in Gary Panter’s Emmy-winning set design for the television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The show concludes with creative play, as defined in the preceding decades, taking over the adult world. A work by Philip Worthington that digitally adds cartoonish animations to shadow puppets made by museum visitors is introduced with a quote from author Pat Kane’s book The Play Ethic: "Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the industrial age—our dominant way of knowing, doing, and creating value."
Organized by Juliet Kinchin from MoMA’s department of architecture and design, the exhibition draws from a remarkably large number of collections both inside and outside of the museum, but balances its formidable scale and ample wall text with a well-paced installation that keeps it feeling surprising and fun. It also scores points for the concurrent and cleverly named film series Unaccompanied Minors, which draws from MoMA’s media holdings. And like the Bauhaus show that the museum mounted in 2010, it serves as a reminder that Modernism’s cool rationality had a playful side, one that endures in a 21st-century culture where play is less and less confined to childhood.