Growing by Design

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has staged an ambitious new exhibition titled The Century of the Child: Growing by Design (1900-2000). The exhibition is a survey of the impact of design upon children throughout the 20th century.

The year 2008 marked the first time in history that more than half of the world’s population lived in cities and towns rather than in the rural countryside. Though this incredible population shift passed us by with little remark, the design world has worked for years to adapt to our new urban environment, particularly with regards to the impact on children. The urbanization and industrialization of the 20th century wrought incredible change on society, both positive and negative; mass production, World War I, World War II, the boom years, the Cold War. Through it all, society began thinking about its children through design.

In 1900 Swedish design reformer and social theorist Ellen Key wrote her seminal treatise called Century of the Child, in which she predicted the change to come. The previous century had not been kind to children; industrialization in England, for example, exploited poor children as a cheap source of labor. Governments lacked even the most basic social security net for their youngest and most vulnerable. Goods and services virtually ignored the existence of children. Parents raised children to be neither seen nor heard.

At the turn of the 20th century, things began to change. New Art, an amalgam of the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau, merged with the Kindergarten movement to mandate a prescribed number of years wherein children could draw, dream, and learn, protected by law from demand for cheap labor. Designers encouraged this movement early on by creating spaces for children to play.