November 1, 2012
Modernists At Play
The children of midcentury masters reflect on growing up in a world surrounded by design.
For modernists, the dream of a new society definitely included children. Many architects and designers of the avant-garde created toys and games, schools, playgrounds, and furniture, reflecting both an individual and collective vision of what a more child-friendly world could be. The Museum of Modern Art’s recent survey of design for kids, “Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000,” examined the intersection of modernist design and progressive play, beginning with the influences of educators like Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, who preached creativity over rote learning, and culminating with the playground revolution that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Michael Gotkin, a landscape architect who is currently writing a book on modernist play environments, says the concept of children’s play was radically reinvented by artists, architects, landscape architects, and industrial designers. “For the first time, designers played a major role in shaping the arenas of children’s play, creating environments that fostered imaginative, group, and unstructured play, in marked contrast to earlier decades of narrowly defined play equipment,” he says. But what was it like being the child of an architect or designer? What were their toys and games like? We asked five of them to share their singular experiences with us.
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My dad designed the gray structure originally as a toolshed, but my brother and I used to sleep in there and have campouts. You could climb a ladder to an upper floor and there was this little step you could stand on and look out from. The main house has moments like that too. For example, my parents placed a little window in my room that looked down on their main sleeping area, so that if I got scared, I could open the window and see them.For a few years, we lived in an apartment in the West Village of Manhattan, and my brother Sebastian and I shared a room which had bunk beds with our names stenciled on the side. On the other side of the room, my dad actually built a jungle gym that we could climb on. I also had a beautiful dollhouse designed by Charles Moore, who was very close to my parents. All the roof parts could be taken off to play with. It was in storage for a long time. My niece has it now.
György & Juliet Kepes
In 1945, my family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. My mom was an artist and a children’s book illustrator, and my dad, who was an artist, designer, and theoretician, got a job teaching visual design in the architecture department at MIT. They designed a playroom in the house for me that had all these different kinds of “manipulatives,” as they would be called today. For example, there was a clock with cork balls on it, and you could remove the balls and count them, so subliminally it taught you about time and counting, but it was also a beautiful object. The ceiling had this Day-Glo paint (it was probably radioactive at the time), so when I lay in my bed and looked up there were these kind-of balls that stuck into the ceiling. I don’t know if it was a replica of the Big Dipper or if it was simply a pattern. There was also a plywood panel with a cutout, and a tree trunk in the room that I would climb through and jump on my bed. That was a big hit for all my friends.I loved the mural that my parents did too, because it not only had beautifully illustrated animals, but it had a real egg on it. Dad always told the story of growing up in the countryside in Hungary and how he would steal eggs from the chickens and drink the raw egg. It was a treat for him. My two sons made a replica of that mural that’s included in the MoMA’s “Century of the Child” exhibition. It’s great that people are thinking about play again as having validity as opposed all this stuff with testing and achievement gaps.
I was born in 1940 in Nancy, France, during an interesting part of my father’s life. During the war he was a very important part of the French Resistance, making many pieces for the Resistance such as trains, bicycles, and even stoves that could burn anything, even dust. He also started working on prefabricated houses for refugees. At the end of the war, he was designated the mayor of Nancy by the committee of the Resistance, but he wasn’t interested in a political career, so he did not run.
After the war, everything was being rebuilt; the world was living again. I went with my dad quite often to his factory in Maxéville. He’d make me drive his car while I sat on his knees. Because we had stayed in Nancy for the entire duration of the war, my father wanted the family to go to Brittany for a summer vacation. My mother agreed but we didn’t have a place to stay. He told my mother to take a prefabricated house for refugees that he had in his factory to Brittany, assemble it, stay there for the summer, and then sell it since we couldn’t afford to keep it. The house was broken down into pieces and put onto a train, and my mother found a place to put the house for two months. My mom and the children drove from Nancy to Brittany in a truck with all the pieces of furniture that we’d use in the house. It took us about four days to put the house together. My dad was busy, so he didn’t come. At the end of summer, it was sold, dismantled, taken to another place, and we never found it again. We also had an American Jeep that my mother got from some U.S. soldiers and we crossed all of France in it. It was an interesting adventure.
By the time I was born in 1969, my dad had already designed playgrounds like the Adventure Playground in Central Park. My sister and I felt a unique sense of ownership and pride in those playgrounds. He actually took a psychological approach to playground design. One of his innovations was to have double slides, because he had observed kids at playgrounds, and he found that when there was only one slide, there might be a kid up there, hesitating, not ready, fearful, and the other kids might be behind him saying, “Come on, go!” So my dad designed this double slide, so that one kid could take his or her sweet time and build up their courage without interrupting the flow of the rest of the kids.
Aldo Van Eyck
Tess Van Eyck
My dad started designing playgrounds in Amsterdam just after the Second World War. He did hundreds of them, but today there are just a precious few left. All those wonderful pieces of playground equipment have also been demolished. It’s terribly sad. The playgrounds dotted all over Amsterdam formed a kind of empowerment for the child, because as the city became bigger and the car was introduced, children were more or less pushed off the street. My dad thought that only when the city is covered in snow does it, for a short while, belong to the child again. When the snow disappears, the kids have to go back indoors or they have to be taken by their mothers to a playground, and most tend to be enclosed and controlled. My dad’s playgrounds encouraged children to discover shapes, forms, proportions, and distances, and develop their imaginations on their own terms. Wherever you were in the playground, you were never on the edge, but always surrounded by something. Either you were in the sandpit or you were climbing or hanging upside down, jumping on something, or going from one place to the other. There was a whole sequence of games you played with other kids on the way, sometimes via the jumping stones or somersault bars.