When architecture critic Alexandra Lange first had her children — a son and daughter, now ages 11 and 7, respectively — she says that she found herself, like many parents of infants, contending with an avalanche of stuff: toys, dish ware, clothing, furnishings and assorted accoutrements.
“As a design critic, all this stuff was coming into my house and I had opinions about it,” she recalls. Like the Automoblox Minis that someone had gifted her son — toys that showed a good eye for form, but which failed crucial tests of day-to-day play. “By the 100th time I lost the wheels under my couch,” says Lange, “I decided that they didn’t work.”
That episode inspired an essay in Fast Company about toy design. Since then, the intersecting topics of kids and design is something she has revisited regularly in her dispatches for Curbed and the New Yorker. And it’s something she explores at length in her new book, “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids,” published this summer by Bloomsbury.
As expected, the book contains chapters devoted to charting the history of important toys, such as wood blocks and Lego. But “Design of Childhood” casts a wider, more ambitious net, looking at the ways in which attention to children and their needs has helped shape design at large — including public space (playgrounds), architecture (schools and the home) and urbanism (safe street design).
And it looks at the way design has tried to shape children in turn. Those open-plan schools of the ’70s? They were an attempt to foster free thinking and collaboration by removing the walls between classrooms. Unfortunately, they also fostered poor acoustics and quickly went out of vogue. (Though the buzzwords remain with us still.)
Lange’s work brings together topics that are generally covered in isolation. You’ll find plenty of books on playground design, school design or toy design. It’s much harder to find anything that weaves those strands together for a broader view of how design has contended with evolving ideas of childhood (and race, economics and the nature of the American city). In this regard, her book is essential.
In this wide-ranging conversation (which has been edited for clarity), Lange talks design and kids — discussing the pivotal role of women designers, the shape of schools during segregation and why Silicon Valley may be appropriating the language of children’s design.
You uncovered work by female designers who have been overlooked in the field. What kind of stories did you find?
There was Caroline Pratt — she started the City and Country School [in New York City in the early 20th century] and she was valued in her day. Caroline Pratt created the block that most of us use as kids, the unit block. It’s made of blond wood and shaped like a brick. If we’re talking about influential designers, we should talk about her.
And there was Patty Smith Hill [who worked at the turn of the 20th century]. She realized that if you make blocks bigger, you make them more social — it requires more children to move them around. They were used for outdoor play and collaborative play. A lot of these things were developed by women educators. If you change your lens, you realize they were important women designers. We just didn’t call them that.
In the U.S., we take for granted that a home would have space for children. That hasn’t always been the case. How has the American home evolved over time?
That was somewhat of a slippery topic. We are still living in homes that were built in the 19th century and homes that have been remodeled. It’s hard to say what is the American home. So I ended up turning to Parents magazine. It was started in the 1920s and had a column titled “Homes Mothers Want.” Their focus was on the most contemporary version of the home they thought their readership would want — and you can trace the difference in the importance of the way those houses changed.
The big difference is children having their own rooms and playrooms. In the 19th century, children might have slept in their parents’ room or in the attic. They didn’t have things purchased specifically for them. But in the 1920s, that starts to change — you start to see child-sized furniture. Then after World War II, there is a huge building boom and they are building houses from scratch and those houses have play rooms or play areas. Children’s spaces start to be thought of as a necessity.
But a lot of what we are talking about is ideal situations that were more available to white families than for minority families and they are economically indexed.
This brings up a fascinating section about the Rosenwald Schools, designed for black children during segregation. What kind of story do they tell?
They were a program started by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald [a philanthropist and part owner of Sears, Roebuck & Co.] in the early 20th century in the South. At the time, white children were pretty much going to school, at least elementary education. That was not available to black children. So the idea was that the Rosenwald Schools program would cover part of the cost to build schools and they’d provide architectural patterns to build them. Some of the budget would have to come from the fundraising from the black community. So white schools were public schools and they were free. Black people had to build their own schools.
The design is essentially a pumped up version of a one-room schoolhouse and the look of the schools was purposely kept simple so that they wouldn’t look better than the white schools. In the book, I talk about this incident where Frank Lloyd Wright was asked to design a Rosenwald School, but it ended up being too fancy.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has an initiative to preserve some of the surviving Rosenwald Schools. But what you need is a Rosenwald School trail. The scale of it is important. They built 5,000 of these. [About 800 remain.]
Speaking of school design, I went to one of those open-plan schools from the ’70s (a hot mess after it was reconfigured with classrooms). What’s the most cockamamie open-plan design you’ve seen?
There is a school in Queens that is a giant circle. And the classes were supposed to be arrayed around the circle, with low walls between them. At the center, there was a library, up some steps. But the library didn’t have walls and you could hear everything that was going on around you. So the library, which was supposed to be quiet, ended up being the most cacophonous spot in the building. Now it’s been retrofitted and it’s really awkward.
They were bad. Open-plan schools were a failure of architecture. But there were elements of them that tried to approach a different idea of education that was good and progressive.
Early playgrounds consisted of a sand pile in an empty lot, which provided lots of play possibilities. You advocate for “junk” playgrounds that are also open-ended. Why?
A junk playground can mean a lot of things: it’s an empty lot, preferably in an urban area and it’s filled with junk. That junk can be cardboard boxes or broken exercise bicycles or construction refuse. The important part is that it’s loose and that children can decide for themselves if they want to dig a hole or build a swing with a rope. The idea is they build their own play. In Japan, I visited a junk playground and one afternoon I watched two girls climb on the roof of a hut and start to sing.
By making playgrounds this thing where all you can do is go up and down the slide, you’re making it boring. If you give them a pile of cardboard boxes, then they have agency. That’s why sand works so well. In a sand garden, one day the kids would pile all the dirt into a mountain. The next day they’d take the hose and make a water slide. The next day they’d be mucking about. Sand is the most elemental thing.
You write that making cities better for kids makes them better for adults — providing access to green space and making streets pedestrian-friendly. Do you have an example we should be emulating?
I don’t feel like I saw the perfect thing we should all copy. I feel like I saw bits of it and we should extract from that. What I have been saying to an American audience is that I think street redesigns are a really important place to start. If we want children to be more independent, the real threat to their lives is streets and cars. That’s not a fake fear — like your child being kidnapped — it’s a real fear.
It doesn’t matter how many nice amenities you have if you can’t get to them safely. If walking through your neighborhood is dangerous because everyone is moving too fast, dealing with the street is the first line. Children and families belong in cities and they deserve to have cities designed to protect them.
“Innovation” spaces at tech companies such as Google often borrow from child-centric design: open spaces, bold colors, some even have Legos. What’s the appeal?
I would say that we are employing design for children as decor for adults. The bright colors and the bean bags, they are decor. It becomes wallpaper for tech companies to say, ‘We’re fun, we play, we get our ideas from this.’ It’s not clear to me how much time anyone there has to play with this stuff. Ironically, we associate children with creativity even as we take opportunities for creativity out of their lives.