By now, it's conventional wisdom that early childhood experiences — down to the shapes and colors of one's toys — have a lasting impact. After all, ours is the age of bestseller parenting books and souped-up strollers. But a century ago, designers were just beginning to focus on the littlest among them, studying how to create healthful, stimulating environments for the next generation. "Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000," at New York's Museum of Modern Art, surveys the far-reaching movement with more than 500 objects, from a chic (if impractical) glass desk by Gio Ponti to sets from the zany television show Pee-wee's Playhouse. The show maps out key themes, including toys of the war era (a Graf Zeppelin dirigible), projects with an optimistic worldview (a low-cost laptop), and modernist icons (Marcel Breuer's tubular steel furniture). And Breuer was just one of several Bauhaus designers to address the younger set. When Alma Siedhoff-Buscher was tasked with the children's room for a 1920s Bauhaus model house, she created a set of colorful building blocks and designed walls that budding artists — or decorators — could draw on. She argued that "children should…have a room in which they can be who they want to be, in which they rule." Luckily for those parents not ready to yield wall space, the MoMA Design Store has her in stock.
"Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000," at the Museum of Modern Art, July 29 to November 5; .
Detail from Stahlromöbel (Tubular steel furniture), loose-leaf sales catalogue for furniture offered by the Thonet Company, showing Marcel Breuer's B341/2 chair and B53 table. 1930-31. Lithograph, gravure, and letterpress, 8 3/8 x 6 1/8" (21.3 x 15.6 cm). Published by Thonet International Press Service, Koln. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Department of Architecture and Design Study Center
Ladislav Sutnar (American, born Bohemia [now Czech Republic]. 1897–1976). Build the Town building blocks. 1940–43. Painted wood, thirty pieces of various dimensions, largest smokestack: 7 3/8 x 2″ (18.7 x 5.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Ctislav Sutnar and Radoslav Sutnar.
Graf Zeppelin toy dirigible. c. 1930. Iron alloy, aluminum, enamel paint, and decals, 7 ¼ x 25" (18.4 x 63.5 cm). Manufacture attributed to J.C. Penney Co., Inc., Plano, Texas. Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The Modernism Collection, gift of Norwest Bank Minnesota
John Rideout (American, 1898 – 1951) and Harold Van Doren (American, 1895-1957). Skippy-Racer scooter. c. 1933. Steel, paint, wood, rubber, 31 3/4 x 43 3/16 x 6 1/2 in. (80.65 x 109.7 x 16.51 cm). Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Gift of funds from Don and Diana Lee Lucker
Jonathan De Pas (Italian, 1932–1991), Donato D'Urbino (Italian, born 1935), Giorgio DeCurso (Italian, born 1927), and Paolo Lomazzi (Italian, born 1936). Chica modular children's chairs. 1971. ABS plastic, assembled: 19 1/4 x 13 x 13″ (48.9 x 33 x 33 cm). Manufactured by BBB Bonacina, Spilimbergo. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the designers
Mariska Undi (Hungarian, 1877–1959). Design for children's room. 1903. Lithograph, 11 5/8 x 16 1/4″(29.5 x 41.3 cm). Published by the Hungarian Ministry of Culture in Mintalapok (1903), New folio 1 (IX), no. 1, sheet 2. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase
Jean Prouvé (French, 1901–1984). School desk. 1946. Enameled steel and oak, 28 1/2 x 45 x 34″ (72.4 x 114.3 x 86.4 cm). Manufactured by Ateliers Jean Prouvé, Nancy. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Dorothy Cullman Purchase Fund
Joaquín Torres-García (Uruguayan, 1874–1949). Three Figures. c. 1925. Painted wood, twelve interchangeable pieces, dimensions vary. Daniela Chappard Foundation. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VEGAP, Spain