Century of the Child: Nordic Design for Children 1900 to Today

Written by Pete Oyler

The idea of childhood is one of the great inventions of the Renaissance, perhaps its most human one. Along with science, the nation-state, and religious freedom, childhood as both a social principle and psychological condition emerged around the seventeenth century. Up until that time, children as young as six and seven simply were not regarded as fundamentally different than adults.
–Neil Postman

In 2012 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City launched an ambitious design exhibition that surveyed childhood as a uniquely modern concept. Curated by Juliet Kinchin and Aidan O’Connor, Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000 drew inspiration from Swedish social theorist Ellen Key’s accurate prediction that twentieth-century social culture and policy would focus on the child as a pillar of society.

The foundation of Key’s thinking about childhood in the context of the twentieth century was design. Key was committed to utility and fervent in her belief that beauty was necessary for a harmonious life. “Why is it tasteless to hang beautiful plates on a wall but tasteful to display the same plates on the wall shelves in the dining room?” she asks in her 1899 essay “Beauty in the Home.” Her answer: “Because in the latter case they not only decorate but are also ready to serve their purpose.”

Ad for Lego, 1981. Photo courtesy of    vam.ac.uk

Ad for Lego, 1981. Photo courtesy of vam.ac.uk

Key wrote extensively about how to achieve beauty—through material, color, and form—and emphasized the importance of art in childhood education. “Above all, art must not be allowed to become a new subject of painful rote learning. . . . It should simply surround them so that they, without effort and quite naturally, receive impressions of . . . the ways in which great art portrays human beings and landscapes.” For Key, artistic living was paramount in childhood development, and her thinking has proved prescient: since the beginning of the twentieth century the market for children’s design has flourished. Expanding upon both MoMA’s 2012 exhibition and Key’s thinking, the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in London is about to launch Century of the Child: Nordic Design for Children 1900 to Today, an exhibition that will present a revived focus on the material world of childhood (with a focus on design from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, as the title suggests).

Opening March 30, 2018, and curated by Katy Canales, the exhibition will highlight progressive Nordic design and values. The five Scandinavian countries share a worldview that embraces social democracy and a comprehensive social safety net—all citizens have equal access to free health care and education, and receive generous paid parental leave. Cultural and political ideals that are key to the Nordic model include social and gender equality, as well as practicality, quality, and sustainability. These values are emphasized in the exhibition through a range of iconic pioneering works by brands such as Marimekko, Artek, BRIO, IKEA, and Lego, and by designers such as Alvar Aalto, Hans Wegner, Olafur Eliasson, and Tove Jansson.

Wooden Monkey toy figurine by Kay Bojesen.   Photo courtesy of    vam.ac.uk

Wooden Monkey toy figurine by Kay Bojesen. Photo courtesy of vam.ac.uk

Visitors will enter the exhibition through a whimsical installation featuring Kay Bojesen’s Monkey (1951). A Danish design classic, Bojesen’s Monkey is still manufactured from sustainable plantation teak, and its materiality makes each unique. Bojesen’s Monkey also represents another Nordic principal that is consistent throughout the exhibition: art and design should ignite a child’s imagination and allow freedom for fantasy. “The monkey with its mischievous look and light coloured belly has transformed kids’ rooms into jungles and sparked dreams of far-away places since 1951,” notes the Finnish Design Shop, an online hub for Nordic furniture and housewares. Bojesen’s Monkey is an enduring cultural staple (to this day it makes appearances on Danish wildlife programs and quiz shows) and a fitting introduction to the exhibition. The V&A Museum’s adapted exhibition space includes a wide range of designed objects, garments, graphic works, and environments that highlight freedom, play, craftsmanship, and awareness of nature as central twentieth-century and contemporary Nordic ideals of childhood.

Tripp Trapp Chair by Peter Opsvik.   Photo courtesy of    vam.ac.uk

Tripp Trapp Chair by Peter Opsvik. Photo courtesy of vam.ac.uk

Founded in 1951 by Armi Ratia and based in Helsinki, Finland, Marimekko was a pioneer in textile and garment design and production. Characterized by bold colors, innovative patterns, and simplicity, Marimekko’s clothing champions freedom of movement and creative expression, two concepts that Ellen Key considered essential to childhood development. Included in the V&A’s exhibition and designed by Vuokko Eskolin-Nurmesniemi in 1958 is the iconic, loose-fitting Iloinen Takki (which translates as “happy dress”). The Iloinen Takki is still sold in various sizes, accommodating both girls and women, and illustrates an important ethos within Nordic design: good design is durable and long-lasting.

Like Marimekko’s Iloinen Takki, Stokke’s Tripp Trapp chair, designed by Peter Opsvik in 1972, exemplifies the Nordic prioritization of forward-thinking design. The Tripp Trapp chair is meant to accommodate a child through multiple life stages, and, with its adjustable seat and footrest, can support a three-hundred-pound adult. It is made of solid European beechwood, finished with nontoxic paint, and free of harmful substances such as bisphenol and phthalates, which are typically found in plastic. The chair’s materiality exemplifies other persistent Nordic ideals: health and respect for the natural environment.

Finnish Baby Box. Photo courtesy of    vam.ac.uk

Finnish Baby Box. Photo courtesy of vam.ac.uk

A highlight of the V&A’s exhibition is the Finnish Baby Box, a government-issued parenting starter kit including bedding, indoor and outdoor clothing, and diaper supplies, in addition to other products for infants. A small mattress is included, effectively transforming the box itself into a safe sleeping space; the cardboard-box-as-bed design is correlated with significantly lowered infant mortality rates. Launched in 1938 to assist low-income families, the Baby Box program was extended to all expectant mothers in 1949 and it continues to evolve. In addition to the standard brightly colored and cheerfully patterned clothing, the 2017 box included insulated booties, a wool hat and coverall, and a children’s book . A benefit of the social welfare system and testament to the Nordic commitment to all of its citizens, the box is not commercially available. The international community has taken note, and the states of Ohio, Alabama, and New Jersey, in an effort to reduce rates of sudden infant death syndrome, now provide similar baby boxes to all residents who complete an online educational workshop and pass a subsequent quiz, in hopes of reducing Sudden Unexpected Infant Death Syndrome.

A famous 70’s campaign encouraging paternity leave featuring Swedish weightlifter Lennart ”Hoa-Hoa” Dahlgren.  Photo courtesy of    vam.ac.uk

A famous 70’s campaign encouraging paternity leave featuring Swedish weightlifter Lennart ”Hoa-Hoa” Dahlgren.Photo courtesy of vam.ac.uk

Among the graphic work in the exhibition is a 1978 advertisement featuring Swedish weight-lifting champion Lennart Dahlgren smiling gently at the infant he is holding in his massive arms. Sweden was the first country to extend parental leave to men, and this advertisement  was part of a campaign to encourage men to share the responsibilities of raising children. While the advertisement is testament to the Nordic ideal of gender equality, it is also a reminder that pay inequality based on gender is still a persistent global issue. In her 2018 New York Times article “Children Hurt Women’s Earnings, but Not Men’s (Even in Scandinavia),” Claire Cain Miller notes that, “Scandinavia is supposed to be a family-friendly paradise. . . . Despite generous social policies, women who work full-time there are still paid 15 percent to 20 percent less than men, new research shows—a gender pay gap similar to that in the United States.”
Unlike the United States, however, Nordic countries have a long history of expressing goals of social equality in art and design for public consumption. Take, for example, Johan Ström’s Puckelball Pitch in Malmö, Sweden, another design work documented in the V&A’s exhibition. The Puckelball Pitch is a large field with undulating grass surfaces resembling ski-run moguls. Designed in 2009 and open to the public, this playscape privileges play as an opportunity for learning, exploration, and unpredictability. Ström notes, “Many live under the belief that life is a fair playing field, that both pitch halves are just as big and the goal always has at least one cross. But ultimately the ball never bounces exactly where you want it to and the pitch is both bumpy and uneven. . . . It is not at all certain that the best football player is also the greatest puckelball hero. If the ball doesn’t bounce where you think it will everybody has a chance.”

The work presented in the exhibition represents an ideal of childhood that is a reality for some and an impossibility for many, and crystallizes the role of the designer as a cultural protagonist. With a worsening refugee crisis and a global rise in child poverty, there are many lessons to be learned from the social philosophy and policies of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. The 1991 Scandinavian Design Council manifesto states, “The natural conditions of the five Scandinavian countries have influenced the ways and forms of lives of their people. The harsh and cold climate has forced us to accept the practice of an awareness of nature, a human awareness of neighbours and other people we live with, an economical way of life. Therefore, and because of the vision we have for the world, we recognise that authentic Scandinavian design does have a message for the future of mankind.”

In surveying the scope of Nordic children’s design from the beginning of the twentieth century to now, the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood offers a timely reminder that caring for and investing in children—in our future—is an ethical responsibility in which aesthetics and design play a large role.

Century of the Child: Nordic Design for Children 1900 to Today will open at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in London March 30, 2018, and close September 2, 2018.