Give a child a truck, and what happens? She rolls it. He shakes it. They both start trying to take the wheels off. That was the experience of the Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia, as a kindergarten teacher and as a parent. In the 1920s, his solution was to make toys that were designed, and even encouraged, to come apart: a crudely carved world of people with removable heads, birds with interchangeable beaks, and villages of choose-your-own density. For Torres-Garcia, the wheels-off impulse was destructive, but also creative. “Children don’t always use designed objects or spaces in the ways that are intended. That’s where it gets interesting,” says Juliet Kinchin, a curator in the Architecture & Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art. “There is a two-way conversation between children and designers.”
That conversation is the topic of “Century of the Child: Growing By Design, 1900-2000,” an exhibition curated by Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor, a curatorial assistant in the department, that opens at the museum on July 29, and runs through November 5. It surveys 20th-century design for children at multiple scales, from kindergartens to highchairs, Unicef’s School-in-a-Box to Barbie’s Dream House, inflatable animals to Montessori manipulatives. The title is taken from the Swedish reformer Ellen Key’s book of the same name, which was published in 1900, but the curators had nothing less than a rewriting of modern design history in mind — from the Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld’s primary-colored 1923 wheelbarrow forward.