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MoMA debuts its new museum exhibit "Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900--2000"

The MoMA looks back at children's influence on designers---and their influence on kids---in its new museum exhibit "Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900--2000."

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Century of the Child at MoMA

Photograph: Virginia Rollison

Century of the Child at MoMA

Modern parents know better than anyone that high design makes good business sense: Giggle's Oeuf cribs, Bloom high chairs and P'kolino toys fly off the shelves in large part because they look better than their equally functional and usually much less expensive counterparts. But it wasn't always so, as the Museum of Modern Art's new museum exhibit "Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900--2000" makes clear. The show's first gallery, which roughly correlates to the beginning of the 20th century, is in fact rather dark—perhaps intentionally so, to underscore how little impact children had on much of anything. Thankfully, the show brightens up considerably in the subsequent galleries, and begins to resonate when things suddenly become recognizable to parents, stirring distant memories of their own childhoods. While even curator Juliet Kinchin admits the exhibition isn't aimed at children, we think it's worth it to show your kids its imaginative toys, children's furniture, film clips and memorabilia. Here are five things to do at the new museum exhibit as you survey the 20th century's remarkable (art) history.

Reverse roles
It's not every day that kids can cut you down to size, so indulge them by hopping up on one of Norwegian designer Peter Opsvik's "Maxi" chairs before you enter the exhibit. The mega table and chairs, which includes a giant version of Opsvik's iconic Tripp Trapp chair, is meant to impart the experience of what it is to be small and, well, powerless. It makes for an ideal photo op, so hand the camera over to your momentary adult and give him your best smile.

Discover De Stijl
Before heading to the museum, peruse the geometric art of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, one of the founders of the De Stijl ("the style") movement with your art historian--in-training and ask her to let you know if anything in the show reminds her of that work. There's bound to be a eureka moment in the second gallery, where a children's lacquered-wood table and chair set in bright red (designed by Dutchman Cor Alons; 1926--27) and a gorgeously geometric, red and yellow wheelbarrow (by Gerrit Rietveld, also Dutch; 1923) await. Like the blue, red, yellow and white wood nursery furniture in the corner by Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher (1923), they are testament to the far-reaching influence of one artist's personal vision.

Share your nostalgia
The bright-yellow wall at the back of the third main gallery signifies the dawn of a new age, post World War II and onward, with the elegance of a sunrise. The show's galleries aren't exactly chronological, so this room holds within it toys and ephemera not only from the '40s and '50s (the Slinky, 1945; a Swingline children's dresser, 1951; an Eames coat rack, 1953), but all the way up to the 1980s, including a Good Toys block set (1966), a Spirograph set (invented in 1965) and a Playsam car (1984--86). Impossible as it is for them to believe, it never hurts to remind your kids you were once their age too.

Meet Conky, Globey and Clocky
In the far corner of the fourth gallery, kids get an introduction to the anthropomorphic characters from the television show Pee-Wee's Playhouse: Conky, the robot made of antiquated machine parts (a keyless typewriter, a boombox, camera flash attachments) who would tell Pee-Wee the "secret word of the day"; Globey, the French-accented, spherical fellow who helped Pee-Wee with worldly matters such as history and geography; and Clocky, the talking yellow clock in the shape of the United States. The set design element will confirm for the kids that you were definitely born in another century.

Celebrate the 21st century
Don't walk out of the show too fast or you'll miss the most child-friendly work on view: British artist Philip Worthington's interactive installation Shadow Monsters. When a kid stands in front of the screen, her shadow will appear on it: your average silhouette. When she starts making shadow creatures like a bird, a fox or an alligator, though, all kinds of animal vocals emerge from hidden speakers, and the shadows of her originally human body parts will sprout the likes of scary crocodile teeth and the fluttering wings of a bird. Worthington finished his first version of Shadow Monsters in 2004—yes, outside the show's supposed parameters—confirming the words painted on an orange wall (a quote from Pat Kane's 2004 book The Play Ethic) that act as an inspired farewell: "Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the industrial age—our dominant way of knowing, doing & creating value." If little museumgoers could grasp it, they'd no doubt breathe a collective sigh of relief.

"Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900--2000" is on view at the Museum of Modern Art from July 29 to November 5.

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