Century of the Child - Designmuseum Danmark


This is a major and extensive survey of design for children, progressive Nordic design, that includes examples of furniture, toys and books for children, clothing, photographs of school architecture, playgrounds and public spaces, along with posters and advertising. There are a few references to food and packaging with the OTA oat flakes and tetra paks for fresh milk for children and even a three-wheel Christiania bike from the 1980s with its large square front box for carrying small loads of goods or large loads of kids.

The title of the exhibition comes from a book, The Century of the Child by Ellen Key, that was published in Sweden in 1900 and was where Key wrote about child labour, which then existed throughout Europe, and wrote about her concerns about poverty, social conditions in working-class homes and the need for health care and support for young mothers.

Really the first main gallery sets a theme that runs quietly through the exhibition … from the start of the 20th century there is furniture from a middle-class nursery and illustrations from the book At Home by Carl Larsson. These show the life of children from affluent well-established families who had the freedom and opportunity to play and their rooms and gardens are filled with colour and toys. It was this freedom to play that Keys advocated for all children and it was the Key’s vision that all children in Sweden would have a childhood like that shown in A Home.

There are other important political points made in a number of explanation panels through the exhibition … so for instance the Nordic countries were amongst the first signatories to the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child and in 1974 Sweden was the first country to introduce parental leave for men … not hectoring political points and presented in a fairly subtle way but certainly important and certainly appropriate for wider ongoing debate.

Distinct themes make the exhibition incontestably Scandinavian: many of the designs and objects have obvious connections with nature and natural materials and another theme is a strong and well-established sense of society in Nordic countries and how this effects the lives of children … both the role of society in providing appropriate support for children and parents but also ultimately, in return, the role of the individual in society as they become an adult. Over the century there was also a growing awareness of the importance of free play not simply for the sake of play but in giving a child every opportunity to develop as a person.

The book accompanying the exhibition makes a crucial point that I had not thought about, even though I consider myself to be a social historian: it points out that the battlefields of the First World War left millions of widows and fatherless children and was followed closely by the Depression of the 1920s  so “… high unemployment and growing concerns about low birth rates: and the lacking quality of life for the general population … children were the literal and symbolic promise for a better future.” This was an imperative that drove planners, architects and designers to improve schools, homes, toys and equipment for learning and for play.



Some things shown here are relatively obvious: good toys are robust and simple, or at least not unnecessarily complicated or fiddly and are best in bright colours. A prime function is to stimulate the imagination but not direct it. For international visitors, the most readily recognised are the wooden tracks and trains from Brio of Sweden and Lego, of course, and wooden animals and figures by Kay Bojesen from Denmark.



Furniture produced from the middle of the century onwards is not simply scaled down from the furniture made for adults but often takes innovative and imaginative forms. There is a chair from Trip Trap that was designed by Peter Opsvik in 1972 that can be adjusted to raise a child up to the eye line of adults sitting around a table on normal chairs so the child is not looked down on. From Artek there is the Baby High Chair from 1965 and a number of pieces from IKEA. 



Special school furniture becomes increasingly important and also of course the importance of good, high quality design for building new schools. 

As with toys so with school buildings, the most obvious changes in the design of schools was in the furniture and in the introduction of strong colours and an emphasis on furniture that was well made and could be easily maintained but there were massive changes in the number of rooms and the diversity of spaces and areas that were not traditional classrooms. 

An amazing group of new schools were designed and built shortly before the Second World War. Skolen ved Sundet on Amager in Copenhagen was a traditional school but it also had facilities for sick children with a large upper room with windows that slid back so they could rest but benefit from sun and fresh air - this was a period when tuberculosis was still common and had a terrible impact on children and their families. The school was an early building in reinforced concrete … In the catalogue Anne-Louise Sommer describes it as a functionalist masterpiece that “represents the very core of democratic, inclusive architecture, with its distinct focus on helping the weak. In this sense, the architecture reflected the prevailing ideals of the emerging social democratic welfare state.”

Eriksdalsskolan on Södermalm from 1938 by the architectural partnership of Nils Ahrbom and Helge Zimdal was one of the largest and most modern schools of the period with a pool and sports hall, a library and its own cinema.

Inkeroinen School in Anjalankoski from 1938-39 by Alvar Aalto was on a sloping site with classrooms at the upper part of the site but also workshops and significantly a large gymnasium lower down. Developing physical strength and good overall health became increasingly important as a role where schools could and should intervene.

Major changes in the way schools were laid out began in the inter-war years but perhaps the most rapid developments and changes are in the 1950s and 60s and onwards.

Again there is a political point here. In part, so much money and thought was given to improving education because education and the development of technical training, even at school level, were important in the Cold-War period … there was a fear that western Europe would drop behind the Soviet Union in what was seen as a race to develop industry and technology. In my own secondary education in England we were not taught French and Latin as had been normal in grammar schools but German and Russian as the the languages of science and the future.

There are photographs and information about a number of playgrounds as the provision of play equipment in public parks and gardens was seen as more and more important. Skrammellegepladsen … the Junk Playground in Emdrup in Copenhagen dates from 1943 and was what in England, in the late 50s and 60s, was often called an adventure playground. Again the idea was to encourage a sense of independence where children could develop physical skills from climbing trees and building surprisingly large constructions. Not much worry about Health and Safety inspectors back then.



From much more recently there is a model and photographs of the Puckelball Pitch from Malmö … an amazing football pitch on dramatically undulating ground with mad bent and twisted goals of different sizes to even out skills of sides with children of different ages and different abilities. 

In the exhibition area there are some interactive sections with, for instance, a room where children can create stop-start animations with wooden toys; there are two areas with foam floor toys for toddlers from bObles and many of the cases are provided with wooden steps so children can climb up to look but generally this is an exhibition for adults with a lot of text - that really does merit and justify time spent reading and absorbing - and should be a must-see for teachers and educational administrators along with young parents looking for ideas and context … and of course for old adults just wanting to reminisce.  

Throughout are reminders of the political background and the social changes driven by new political philosophies. In school building “no expenses were spared for working-class children in the era when the social democrats governed the entire Nordic region and were intent on building the welfare state.” 

A strong theme is the complex idea of using design to encourage children not only to develop their imagination and creativity but also the need to encourage children to play together and to be active for good physical development … now a significant problem again with growing levels of obesity.

Health is also covered in the exhibition in terms of protecting the child so for instance there are early car seats.

Theories about best practice and ideas of using good design and good architecture to intervene in child rearing extends to the design of housing. The Collective House on John Ericssonsgatan in Stockholm from 1935 had 57 apartments, a restaurant, a central kitchen, a central laundry and a department for child care. Apartments had minimal kitchens but dumb waiters so food could be ordered and delivered from the main kitchen. Here, it was clear, the responsibility for child rearing was to be shared between the parents and the state. The state felt it could and should help and direct and support every stage of a child’s life … the Finnish Maternity Package, providing much that a new baby would need including clothes and nappies, started in 1937 for eligible families but the scheme was soon extended to go to all mothers to be.

Century of the Child is extensive and rightly thorough for it charts the phenomenal changes that have taken place in the life of children in the Nordic world over the course of a century and with these huge changes and developments, designers and, through them, the design process was central. “This is design, architecture and art created for children - not just adapted adult versions.”

The conclusion is that “Thoughtful design, architecture and art have … become part of children’s everyday life - not a privilege for the few, as they were 114 years ago.”



for more photographs of the exhibition


Museum Vandalorum, Värnamo, Sweden - 10 May to 28 September 2014

Designmuseum Danmark, Copenhagen - 28 November 2014 to 16 August 2015

Design Museum, Helsinki - 9 October 2015 - 17 January 2016