100 Years of Children’s Art and Toy Design at MOMA

Il Bimbo Cattivo (the Bad Child) by Antonio Rubino (1924)

Il Bimbo Cattivo (the Bad Child) by Antonio Rubino (1924)

Over 500 whimsical objects have just been on exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The nostalgia-inducing art and toy designs are all connected by Swedish social theorist Ellen Key’s “Century of the Child” manifesto.

Italian Toy Design: Skittles by Giovanni Prini (1916)

Skittles by Giovanni Prini (1916)

Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000 is “the first major overview of the subject of childhood as a means for modern design thinking in the 20th century”. MOMA curator Juliet Kinchin took on the (terrific) task of collecting toy designs that presented the “universal rights and well-being of children as the defining mission of the century to come”.

MOMA's Century of the Child: Growing by Toy Design (1900-2000)

MOMA’s Century of the Child: Growing by Design (1900-2000)

Organized into seven chronological sections: New Century, New Child, New Art; Avant-garde Playtime; Light, Air, Health; Children and the Body Politic; Regeneration; Power Play and, Designing Better Worlds; the exhibition presents visions of a child’s material world, from Utopian dreams to darker realities. The show was interactive offline and on. Sadly, I didn’t make it to New York to see it in person, but happily, Hello Monday designed an amazing website for the exhibit. The website is a really enjoyable tour of toy design from the last century. It catalogs some 250 objects with great photos and information. At the time I’m writing this, the site is still up here.

The Fairy Palace by Bruno Taut (1919)

The Fairy Palace by Bruno Taut (1919)

Designboom recently did a short interview with Kinchin (curator), and I’ve been ruminating on her exhibition and words. In particular:

I think the best design is that which is flexible, stimulating, and leaves room for open-ended, playful interaction. All design functions within larger political as well as aesthetic, intellectual and economic contexts, and therefore bears the imprint of the values we prioritize, our sense of national identity and changing attitudes.

As we head into the 3rd year of the 2nd decade of the 21st century, I find myself wondering if the items we collect as “designer toys” will leave a rich enough legacy to ensure inclusion into a 22nd century survey.

Children's Toy Design: Optical Color Mixer by Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack (1924)

Optical Color Mixer by Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack (1924)

This century started with such promise! A new genre/subculture of design (toys!) was born across multiple continents. But these days, “designer toys” feel awfully bereft of “design”. Design is objective; it is a discipline with rules and standards. In the late 1990s, toy designers in Hong Kong and Tokyo broke those rules and created new standards. But you have to know the rules to break them. Today’s designer toy community suffers from a severe shortage of people who know the rules (and a complete absence of standards).

Children's Toy Design: Personifications of Childhood Misdeeds by Minka Podhajska (1930)

Personifications of Childhood Misdeeds by Minka Podhajska (1930)

Do our designer toys tell stories of who we are? Will they explain our crazy culture to the children of the next generation? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But now it’s time to abandon analysis and descend into nostalgia. Here are a handful of my favorite toys from MOMA’s Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000. Select toys and posters from the exhibition are available through MOMA online, as is the 264-page show catalog (which I just picked up).

Vintage Toy Design: Space Helmet by Banner Plastics (1953)

Space Helmet by Banner Plastics (1953)

Monkey by Kay Bojesen (1955)

Monkey by Kay Bojesen (1955)

The Vegetabull by Jan Le Witt (1956)

The Vegetabull by Jan Le Witt (1956)

Sound Producing Animals by Libuse Niklova (1963)

Sound Producing Animals by Libuse Niklova (1963)

Indoor Play Area by Renate Müller (1985)

Indoor Play Area by Renate Müller (1985)

Omnibot by TOMY (1985)

Omnibot by TOMY (1985)

Puppy by Eero Aarnio (2005)

Puppy by Eero Aarnio (2005)