Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Sometimes it seems we live in a kid’s world. Hollywood churns out comic-book movies and children’s novels dominate bestseller lists. Childless adults make pilgrimages to Disneyland, mums mimic their daughters’ fashion sense, and dads monopolise the family Xbox. A poll commissioned by Time and CNN revealed that two thirds of American parents believe that their own kids are spoiled. Adult hegemony is on the wane.

So the timing of the Museum of Modern Art’s new survey of youngster-oriented design couldn’t be better. “Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000” is fun for the whole family: kids get galleries full of toys to covet (or disdain); the rest of us can try to understand how our culture became so infantilised. This is not a lightweight show. It marshals tea sets, tables, high chairs, marionettes, pull toys, models, drawings and photographs, plus an exhausting profusion of wall texts – all to explain the elevation of the small child to the status of diapered deity.

MoMA’s show breaks into two lopsided parts. The first is a thorough and entertaining romp through the ideology of childhood up to the end of the second world war. The second is a mess. So long as a tight web of philosophical threads links the raising of children with grown-up causes such as social justice and utopian aesthetic reform, curators Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor are confident and clear. But as we move towards the present and the culture diffuses into overlapping trends, the show devolves into a frantic, haphazard mishmash.

Around 1900, modernists and reformers saw that they could reconstruct all of society by starting with its most mouldable members; children embodied a hopeful start to a fresh century. As early as 1883, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred “yes”. For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘yes’ is needed; the spirit now wills its own will.”

Innovative educators such as Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner began to extol creativity over rote learning, while dress reformers crusaded for freedom of movement. Creative play became an end in itself. You can sense that excitement and ferment bubbling up from the inanimate objects on display, such as an array of bright and geometric Montessori teaching materials and a cryptically beautiful chalk drawing from one of Steiner’s lectures, with the motto “In mir ist Gott/Ich bin in Gott.” (“God is in me/I am in God.”)

While Steiner and Montessori took new approaches to the unformed mind, architects coaxed the material world to adapt to the undeveloped body. Brightly lit spaces bloomed in cutting edge-schools and homes. MoMA has Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s perspective drawing for a Glasgow school that is more window than wall. Architecture, Mackintosh believed, could nurture the working-class youth with daylight, operating “like an escape into the mountain air from the stagnant vapours of the morass”. Across the Atlantic, Frank Lloyd Wright stuffed a playhouse for a suburban Chicago family with a mini-stage and a kid-sized kitchen, and girdled the whole building with a band of whimsical windows dotted with balloons, confetti and flags.

After the carnage of the first world war, modernists took up the cause of childhood innocence with even greater urgency. Blaming rigid, militaristic regimentation for the explosive violence of the war, they tried to channel youth’s untrammelled intuitions. In Germany, architect Bruno Taut designed “Dandanah – the Fairy Palace” as a multi-coloured set of glass building blocks that haven’t lost their crystalline magic. Children and parents alike could endlessly reconfigure its bright, simple shapes. The visionary Taut wrote of a blissful future stripped of grown-up conventionality. He dreamed of “floating, impracticable models: stars and absolute fantasy . . . Probably the most important starting point for the new architecture. A frivolous world!”

There’s something poignant about circulating through a serious museum, scrutinising these relics of determined fun. Johannes Itten had been a kindergarten teacher before becoming an instructor at the Bauhaus, and he tapped his students’ imaginations with games. They took up the gauntlet, embarking on kite-flying expeditions, dressing up for costume balls, tossing colour-soaked sponges at the ceiling and generally having a good time, all in the name of a better world.

Members of the Bauhaus also saw a chance to shape the sensibilities of future adults. The show includes an elegantly playful toy chest by Alma Siedhoff Buscher, a weaver and furniture maker, who applied the pared-down Bauhaus sensibility to children’s rooms, hoping to inculcate a taste for modern design, mass production and positive social change.

But the rise of fascism in the 1930s converted miniature role models into important targets of propaganda. German kids slid game pieces along a swastika-shaped board. In Italy, primary-coloured books celebrated the heroism of Mussolini’s troops in Addis Ababa, preparing boys to become the rising empire’s enforcers. Porcelain factories churned out toddlers’ tableware juxtaposing camels, machine guns, palm trees, cannons, pith helmets and the tricolour flag. In Japan, miniature kimonos, emblazoned with parachutes, planes, tanks and bombs, eased the absorption of military culture at a young age.

After the war, children were fussed over in so many various and conflicting ways that the show, like popular culture itself, explodes into discontinuous fragments. The curators seem to have run around the candy-coloured world, excited by everything they saw and oblivious to what they were missing. Japanese manga is awkwardly shoehorned in with the antic theatre of Pee-wee Herman. A Subaru toy car has pride of place but Barbie, perhaps the most iconic pop-culture toy in post-war America, is absent. There’s some mystifying brand-name selectivity at work here: Playmobil makes an appearance, but not the much more popular – and equally design-conscious – Fisher-Price. The section on playgrounds, especially, feels like an afterthought. We get a few one-off experiments, but nothing about the rise of wild adventure playgrounds in the 1960s and 70s – or of their tragic demise, in the face of litigation and safety requirements.

The show breaks off before it can focus on our own timid era, when liability and global competitiveness substitute for the old virtues of imagination and creativity. Kindergarteners are taught to read and take tests before they’re old enough to ride a bike. Instead of clicking together simple Lego blocks into whatever contraptions they can dream up, today’s kids are handed sets of complicated custom shapes and elaborate instruction manuals to follow. They no longer have the luxury of losing themselves in aimless play. Better leave that to the grown-ups.

‘Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000’ continues until November 5; www.moma.org

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