In 1900, Swedish design reformer and social theorist Ellen Key published Century of the Child, a manifesto for change -- social, political, aesthetic, and psychological -- that presented the universal rights and well-being of children as the defining mission of the century to come.Those were the days, at the turn of the last century, when children were adults and brought home a pay check -- or a coin. The youngsters felt good about themselves, responsible, after a 14-hour day at the factory. That was until we started thinking of them as "children." Young individuals with minds and bodies to be cultivated: strong minds, strong bodies -- the future of nations. If we could streamline the production of goods, why not mass education and a little indoctrination while you're at it. Let's also design environments, furniture, games, curriculum, and uniforms.
Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000, now showing at the Museum of Modern Art and organized by curator Juliet Kinchin and curatorial assistant Aidan O’Connor, give what for many visitors may be a flashback -- sorry that doesn't come until the 60s, galleries full of memories -- as it did for me.
With Ellen Key, along with education pioneers Maria Montessori and Friedrich Froebel, came the idea of a childhood as separate and distinct: a child's mind was pure and with simple measures could be encouraged through experiences, to blossom into a creative, modern being. As Picasso supposedly put it, "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." Artists longed for a child's purity, intellectuals wrote of children's rights and welfare, designers embraced a dream world of furniture, clothing, and toys. Europe and the United States -- Chicago, Glasgow, Rome, Vienna, and Budapest -- had some of the original experiential living communities. The future was limitless.
Of course adults always tend to get in the way of purity: enter the oh so boring Fascists attempting to create little perfect little war clones with propaganda and lots of marching. You know the drill, kind of like today's North Korean May Day parade or the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony. Thankfully, a different "greatest generation" prevailed.
After World War II in the Western world the movement continued with the enlightenment of the Boomers: boys could be astronauts and girls could be homemakers. Erector Sets and Etch-a-sketch, Easy Bake Ovens, Hula-Hoops, Lego's and Slinkys bring us towards the end of the century, which also includes Gary Panter's fantastic set for The Pee-wee Herman Show.
Are we better off? In many ways, yes. For many complex reasons the enlightened movement has gone astray. Children have not taken control of every family (a trend that anthopologists are studying), although they are now the major consumers in a typical Western family and the focus of intense marketing. The concept of play includes way too much electronics and our education system is in disarray.
The 21st century has much promise. We need to regain our role as adults and stoke the vision of a society that could be. It takes a lot of dedication, just as it did at the turn of the last century. We have no future without quality education for all and basic human rights for children the world over! This wonderful exhibit is a reminder.
More images on Flickr.