Is Playtime Over?

Article excerpt

Byline: Blake Gopnik

A new show looks back at our toy story.

Kids had it good in the 20th century. Designers gave them revolutionary playthings like Lego and Tinkertoys and the Rubik's Cube, made to be both fun and good for them. Geniuses like Frank Lloyd Wright gave them deluxe schools. For the first time in history, children were even granted a room of their own--a playroom--where they could do their own childish thing. Barbie could get it on with Ken while Slinky and Gumby watched, and the orgy was declared creative expression. The 20th century was the "Century of the Child," according to the title of an upcoming show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. "We're looking at principles and issues that take us to the core of thinking about creativity in every aspect of our culture," says Juliet Kinchin, the 56-year-old Brit who is MoMA's curator of modern design. "You really see how fundamental design and children are to the modern world."

In the tumult of the last century, governments left and right, democratic and tyrannical, invested lavishly in children and their spaces, as a way to seize the future and plant the national flag there. "The utopian can shade quite quickly into the dystopian, and we wanted to show that," says Kinchin. Her exhibition lays out how the children's "colonies" of fascist Italy and the kindergartens of the Soviet Union each housed their charges in shiny modern structures, away from the old-fashioned views and tastes of their parents. Schoolkids, both receptive and captive, were the ideal audience for radical modern ideas and objects. "Stalin had quite a decent reputation among the youngsters," recalled one Eastern bloc graphic designer. "Our parents were quaking with fear while we were having a great time."

Kinchin's show puts the Sputnik playgrounds of Czechoslovakia beside Barbie's Dream House and the wooden toys of Creative Playthings to give a picture of a culture where children were separate, but better. …