Any artist that gets featured in New York’s MoMA can’t be sure of having really “made it”, but will have certainly shaped public discourse for a while. Such as with the “Century of the Child”, a 2012 MoMA exhibition which presented 20th century design for children – including toys. Part of the exhibition also went on display in the Nordic Embassies in Berlin in 2017 for anyone who wanted to take a look at the history of Nordic design for children. Just a few months prior to that, the same building complex hosted: “Much More Than One Good Chair”. Both exhibitions showed that Scandinavian design involves a great deal more than just iconic chairs, Saab, Volvo, Bang & Olufsen, Republic of Fritz Hansen and IKEA – and also includes toys.
The Century of the Child exhibition borrowed its title from the book of the same name by Swedish educational reformist Ellen Key, first published in 1900. She was by no means alone in her educational proposals. We need only think of Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner. If you want to make a lasting change in the world, goes the view, you have to start with the young and watch what they are given hold of.
Toys became mass produced at the end of the 19th century. This led to calls for simple toys suited to children. Those of us living 100 years later in this era of tech toys are very familiar with this. It is not surprising, therefore, that children increasingly became central to the work of architects, designers and artists in the early 20th century – just think of the Bauhaus with Lyonel Feininger (wooden railway), Paul Klee (puppets) and Oskar Schlemmer (dolls). Some works were exhibited again for the 100th anniversary.
Design for a better society
Design also played a prominent role in Nordic countries, and still does so today. Nowhere else has there been and is there still such a close relationship between politics and design. Still today, design must also fulfil social policy objectives and not just produce beautiful things in these countries, which are always ranked among the top in the World Happiness Report. It should help to make life easier when the winters are long and the weather so capricious. Dane Børge Mogensen, one of the most important representatives of the famous Danish Design style, therefore did not want to simply design but to create “democratic furniture”, so to speak. It is thus no coincidence that the Danish INDEX foundation awards the world’s largest monetary design prize worth €500,000 every two years under the motto “Design to Improve Life”.