Ladislav Sutnar. Build the Town building blocks. 1940-43
In keeping with his commitment to modernist principles, Sutnar believed in the cognitive power of a visual language rooted in elemental shapes and colors. Building entire cities with blocks, he believed, would give children an awareness of form and structure that made direct reference to the simple, geometric volumes of functionalist architecture, while also giving a sense of the functional and aesthetic interrelationships between different types of buildings in the modern city. He described these nonverbal, object lessons, taught through play, as “mental vitamins necessary for the right development of a child.” The prototype sets seen here were never put into full production.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Sentry puppet from König Hirsch (The stag king). 1918
The basic elements of Taeuber-Arp’s puppets, turned pieces of wood, are round and sculptural, linked by ring-bolt joints that allow movement in many directions. Puppets were a traditional and popular art form that appeared in many avant-garde circles between the world wars, some growing out of studio projects and others conceived within groups of friends as both a playful diversion and an outlet for new ideas on design, choreography, and performance. Taeuber-Arp, the only woman on the committee of the avant-garde Swiss Puppet Theater, established in 1918, was able to draw on her experience as a performer at Dada soirees and as a dancer at Rudolf von Laban’s school of movement in Zurich.
Following World War I, at a time of severe material shortages and inactivity in the building industries, Bruno Taut and a Berlin group of radical German architects and artists turned to more modest undertakings, such as the design of toys. Taut’s colored glass blocks recalled in microcosm the prismatic form of his Glass House pavilion at the 1914 Werkbund exhibition in Cologne. They allowed children to build free of real-world constraints, relying instead on imagination and artistic intuition. The simple shapes could be reconfigured endlessly (the set came with six colored sheets showing a variety of assemblages), and this malleability fit with Taut’s conception of the new spirit in architecture as dynamic and mobile.
Experience with toy design, often as a result of idealistic attempts to bring up their own children in a new and creative manner, was common among staff and students of the progressive Bauhaus school. These spinning disks, also known as the Optische Farbmischer (Optical color mixer), adhered to the emerging Bauhaus aesthetic of simple geometric forms and unmodulated primary colors, which was due in part to a method of teaching inspired by the kindergarten movement. Toys like the spinning disks and Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s construction blocks sold well, providing an important source of income for the new institution.
Joaquín Torres -García. Village with Numbers. 1928
Torres-García complemented his sculptural practice of experimental abstractions in wood with the design of play objects, which he viewed as an equally valid form of artistic expression. The creative potential inherent in such toys is present in his Numerario, which allowed the child to order, stack, disassemble, and reassemble the buildings, bridges, and other elements of a village streetscape. In such construction toys, Torres-García laid particular stress on the importance of supplying the child with abstract components rather than readymade or fully constructed copies of objects found in daily life.
The Cold War years were marked by intense international competition in science and technology. Toys that could spark interest in these areas in young scientists carried serious weight with forward-thinking adults, and educational kits such as Capsela became increasingly popular at home and in schools. This modular building toy, originally designed and manufactured in Japan in 1975, was advertised as “the construction set of tomorrow.” With it, children could combine plastic capsules with electric motors, gears, propellers, wheels, and pumps to create real and imaginary vehicles, many of which resembled instruments appropriate for lunar deployment.
In a country famous for its wooden toys, Czech designer Libuše Niklová fully embraced plastic. She studied plastic molding, which flourished after World War II, and predicted that “in the future products from plastic will surround man just like the air.” Plastics and air were both central to her inflatable toys, including stylized figures of children of different races and cultures and larger animal-shaped play-furniture. Her other experiments with different plastics produced blown PVC figures representing various professions and polyethylene animals with accordion-shaped torsos (the most common and beloved of which was the cat).
Creative Playthings, originally founded in 1949 as a small toy shop in Greenwich Village, became one of the foremost manufacturers of postwar “good toys”—sturdy, modern interpretations of traditional toys that gained a reputation for good design as well as educational value. The company’s directors, Frank Caplan and Bernard Barenholz, were both former teachers. In the mid-1960s, Creative Playthings, which was then based in Princeton, New Jersey, and operated a factory in Herndon, Pennsylvania, was sold to the Columbia Broadcasting Corporation. The company expanded its range of objects and manufactured more experimental forms, including this abstract plywood rocking horse design. Caplan and his wife, Theresa, eventually left the business to become child-research experts.
The era of the space race was a time of mounting ambitions and anxieties for adults, but for children all over the world it was a time of great imaginative play, with new designed environments in which they could act out their own aerospace adventures. Junior astronauts and cosmonauts commanded scaled-down rockets and satellites, the most striking of which were abstract sculptural departures from the conventional forms. Němeček’s interpretation of Sputnik’s aluminum sphere as an elegant concrete play sculpture, encased in multicolored ceramic and featuring a climbing tube and slide, was originally installed in Stromovka Park, in Prague.
Roger Limbrick. Space Station and Space Rocket cardboard toys. 1968
In 1968 the British company Polypops developed three flat-packed cardboard spacecraft toys designed by Limbrick: Lunartrack, Space Station, and Space Rocket. When constructed, the Space Rocket is just large enough to accommodate one child passenger; its exterior is coated in foil and its interior is intricately printed with dials and circuits.
Playmobil figures, which were introduced in 1975 and are still sold all over the world, were designed by Hans Beck, a model-airplane enthusiast and toy developer. When the early-1970s oil crisis made plastic manufacture more expensive, Beck pursued the concept of small, movable figures that could be paired with various accessories. The core unit of the Playmobil system is the 2 3/4inch figure, which Beck scaled to fit in a child’s hand and enlivened with a simple face like a child’s drawing. Like Lego, Playmobil toys have explored the realms of fantasy and nostalgia, all the while maintaining the modern roots of the system: simple forms and modularity.
Hajime Sorayama. Aibo Entertainment Robot (ERS-110). 1999
The Japanese word aibo, which means “pal,” is also an acronym of sorts for Artificial Intelligence Robot, an electronic pet released by Sony in 1999. This robot has the ability to react to its environment and learn: it is trainable, responds to touch, and is programmed to simulate the behavior of a living animal (sit, stay, come) and perform certain tasks, such as appointment reminders and e-mail notification.
Eero Aarnio. Puppy, from the Me Too collection. 2005
The Me Too collection, launched in 2004 by the Italian domestic-design company Magis, includes Aarnio’s Puppy, an abstract plastic bubble-dog sculpture/toy/seat that retains the fanciful flexibility of the designer’s Pony (1973). According to Eugenio Perazza, the company’s owner, Me Too was named for “the voice of children demanding, insisting to have their own objects, their own furniture that correspond to their own world.” For this line Magis rejected scaled-down adult furnishings and instead sought, in consultation with a developmental psychologist, new forms from designers who were “able to think with the mind of a child.”
Using a limited material vocabulary of jute, leather, and wood, Müller creates high-quality therapeutic toys and environments for active play, in handmade designs that are simple, combining robust forms (ideal for strength, balance, and motor exercises) with refined tactile qualities, bright colors, and straps or handles to encourage physical engagement. She started training in toy design in 1964 and soon launched a career in design for children with special needs, establishing her own studio in 1978. Her series of burlap beasts, which she promoted as “coarse but cute,” became popular in kindergartens and hospitals throughout the region. In her unique modular indoor playground, stick-puppet characters can be used to secure loose cushions into endless arrangements of playful structures.
Tshepo, Rally, and Mawisa, children of the Makuleke Village, South Africa, with Sharing to Learn. Wire car. 2010
This toy, made by children in Makuleke Village, South Africa, is evidence of how in impoverished areas children often become designers themselves, ingeniously producing their own playthings from the detritus of modern industry. The organization Sharing to Learn make cultural exchange possible between the Makuleke children and children in classrooms across the United States and around the world, allowing global peers to share their favorite books and participate in collaborative experiments such as gardening and making toys like this.
Get your daily dose of design from the MoMA exhibition Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000. During each of the 100 days of the exhibition we will showcase an object featured in the show.