NEW YORK — The Hungarian-born Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer once conjured the importance of the building block, that quintessence of child's play, as a route to good design. After receiving an honorary degree from the university in his childhood town of Pécs, he explained: "When children play with building blocks, they discover that they fit together, because they are square.... Then, the child discovers that the blocks are empty, that the sides turn into walls, and that there is a roof and a structure.... That is when the child will indeed become an architect. Manager of voids and spaces, priest of geometry."
By the same token, good, simple design might save a child's life. In 1998, during a famine in Sudan, Doctors Without Borders commissioned the Bracelet of Life. Printable from the organization's website, the bracelet fits around the upper arm of children younger than 5 and lets emergency volunteers quickly assess their level of malnutrition.
Both these examples are included in "Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000," an intriguing exhibition scheduled to open Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art. Named after an essay by Swedish design and social theorist Ellen Key, which was published onNew Year's Day 1900, and predicted that the well being of children would preoccupy the 20th century, the exhibition features more than 500 works from five continents investigating the confluence of modern design and childhood.
"Design for children is one of the great, unsung stories of modernism in the 20th century," said Juliet Kinchin, curator in the museum's department of architecture and design. "There's no shortage of material, but I felt the topic hadn't been accorded the kind of high-profile treatment that it deserves. The exhibition has also been an important vehicle for giving women architects and designers greater visibility, as design for children is an area in which so many have excelled."
In a catalog essay, curatorial assistant Aidan O'Connor cites global agreements supporting the concept of the "universal child" possessing universal rights, and exemplifying Key's thinking: the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by world leaders in 1989.
According to O'Connor, "good graphic design" — like a 1969 UNICEF poster created by Finnish artist Jukka Veistola to combat child hunger — "can send powerful messages with minimal text." Design is also used in projects "intended to give children more equal footing with their universal peers," such as recent initiatives that have focused on bridging the digital divide. Among these is the XO Laptop, an inexpensive computer conceived in 2005 by One Laptop Per Child, the nonprofit group started by the MIT Media Lab.
Halfway around the world is the Hole-in-the-Wall program. This grew out of an experiment conducted in 1999 in New Delhi by Sugata Mitra, a scientist and education researcher. Mitra knocked a hole in the wall that separated his office building from a slum and inserted a desktop PC with high-speed Internet access into the hole; he observed, by camera, the active response and quick browsing abilities of children with little or no experience with computers or even TV.
Extending his experiment to rural areas, Mitra found that children there also rapidly and steadily acquired computer skills, Internet basics and simple English, and concluded that 6- to 13-year-old kids can teach themselves these skills. A tamper-proof learning station, which protects a mass-market PC, was commissioned by Hole-in-the-Wall Education Ltd. and is in use in India, Bhutan, Cambodia and the Republic of Central Africa; it is in a video in the exhibition, which runs through Nov. 5.
Another theme spanning the show's many decades is the concept of creative play with material things. In the catalog, Kinchin calls this play "a route to understanding spatial relations and problem-solving, as well as creating a sense of the individual in relation to larger cosmic harmonies."
Just as Breuer was inspired by building blocks, Frank Lloyd Wright found meaning in a wooden sphere, cylinder and cube designed by 19th century German educator Friedrich Froebel and made in 1890 in Braintree, Mass. Wright's mother and first wife were devotees of Froebel's educational philosophy, as was Queene Ferry Coonley, who commissioned Wright's famous early building, the 1912-1913 Avery Coonley Playhouse in Riverside, Ill. The playhouse's windows contain brightly colored geometric motifs that suggest balloons, confetti and flags, and pay homage to Froebel's toys.
Using play to explore imaginative space continued long after Breuer and Wright, with the introduction of Lego blocks in the 1950s; the 1974 debut of the Rubik's Cube — the toy often considered the bestseller of all time — which was created by Hungarian architect Erno Rubik while experimenting with his students at the Budapest Academy of Applied Arts; and Michael Joaquin Grey's ZOOB play system, introduced by Infinitoy in the mid-1990s.
Asked to identify the most beautiful and surprising objects in the exhibition, Kinchin said that this would be like choosing "between one's own children" but then picked, among the most beautiful, a 1912 frog prince panel designed by Scottish artist Jessie King and Ladislav Sutnar's "build the town" construction toy from the early 1940s, which she said "taps into the same kind of elemental forms and colors that you would find in a painting by Mondrian or design from the Bauhaus." Most surprising: a set of children's tableware made in Italy by Richard Ginori in the 1930s, which at first glance "looks perfectly innocent and playful, until you realize that the motifs include tanks, pith helmets, rifles and other military paraphernalia."
Kinchin said that the biggest issues facing kids' designers today include "how to design stimulating and physically challenging environments — schools and playgrounds — within the constraints imposed by risk-averse attitudes and legislation in many different parts of the world; how to build urban environments that accommodate the interests of children; [and] how to design toys that are robust, have charm and integrity." Children nowadays "have more 'stuff,' but designing it well doesn't get any easier," she added.
The scale of many of the exhibition's objects and environments for children is "a constant surprise," Kinchin said. "Looking at the objects as they have been arriving is a constant reminder that children themselves are constantly growing, often in tremendous spurts. Looking at a tiny piece of furniture forces you to adopt a new perspective and think about how others view the world."