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“The Big Wheel is a good example of what I call a ‘design moment.’ It literally pushed traditional metal pedal toys to the curb because it combined fun, safety, and affordability.”
–Elisabeth Agro, assistant curator of Decorative Arts, Carnegie Museum of Art





















From the 15th century until the late 19th century, the whole purpose of baby walkers and walking frames was to get babies into their “proper” standing position so they wouldn’t crawl about like animals.













Decades later, “Children’s design has taken center stage,” says Agro, “and many parents want to
surround their children with good design.





kid size

Kid-sizing products for children is an art, a science, and a business all its own. A new exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Art sheds light on the unique world of children’s design and gives kids of all ages plenty to think about.

A four-year-old girl pedals her Big Wheel faster and faster, skids and spins to a stop, and lights up with a 1,000-watt smile. This scenario has been repeated millions of times since the Big Wheel was introduced to the world at the 1969 New York Toy Fair. This injection-molded plastic pedal toy literally turned the tricycle industry upside down by flipping the classic tricycle over, making it safer, and allowing children to do more tricks. “The Big Wheel is a good example of what I call a ‘design moment,’” says Elisabeth Agro, assistant curator of Decorative Arts at Carnegie Museum of Art. “It literally pushed traditional metal pedal toys to the curb because it combined fun, safety, and affordability.”

In the exhibition kid size: The Material World of Childhood, which runs through September 11 at Carnegie Museum of Art, Agro has featured a number of these “design moments” that changed the way adults designed products for and thought about children. The lively exhibition—which combines doses of history, design, and kids-oriented activities—compares and contrasts childhood objects dating back 300 years and spanning many cultures. Some of the objects on view will bring back pleasant childhood memories for adult visitors, while others from earlier times and faraway places will demonstrate how the distinctive needs of children long went unrecognized.

Children’s design as an industry didn’t begin to take shape until the 1950s, explains Sharon Carver, director of the Children’s School of Carnegie Mellon University. In the United States, it was a time of peace, prosperity, and a huge post-World War II baby boom. It was the era of Dr. Spock and the blossoming of the notion that society had the responsibility to provide social and emotional support for children.

“During this shift in perception, companies began marketing directly to children,” she says. “Over the last 20 to 25 years, it’s become a whole separate market.”

Letting Kids Be Kids
“ From a design point of view, up to the 18th century, children were considered little adults, and their furnishings were the same as those for adults, only smaller,” explains Agro. In fact, from the 15th century until the late 19th century, the whole purpose of baby walkers and walking frames was to get babies into their “proper” standing position so they wouldn’t crawl about like animals.

Today, few would argue that children are clearly different from adults, both in how they behave and what they need to thrive. But our current attitudes toward children are as much a product of our relative wealth and comfort as they are a result of scientific research.

“ How society views children is cyclical, based on the times and cultural beliefs. It isn’t a straight-line evolution,” says Heidi Feldman, MD, a child development specialist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “If a society is stressed through famine, depression, or war, children are asked to mature very quickly, as in the United States in the ’30s through the ’50s.”

Dating much further back in history, Feldman points out that artwork can provide interesting insights into society’s views of children. In paintings from the Middle Ages, children were painted to look like miniature adults. Yet during the Renaissance, a time when more prosperity allowed society’s view of children to soften as the toy-making industry was born, artists portrayed children as rounder, plumper, softer, and more realistic.

If the Shoe Fits…
The industrial revolution did much to change the way products were manufactured for ordinary people. Items that had been custom-made for each individual during pre-industrial times were now available for all, often at a far lower price. Agro notes that mass production was behind another design moment highlighted in the kid size show—the bent beechwood highchair manufactured by Gebrüder Thonet of Vienna. Thonet developed a new technology that used steam to bend wood and became the first successful manufacturer of mass-produced children’s furniture.

After experimenting with various sizes, Thonet arrived at a formula for designing children’s furnishings at 70 percent of adult dimensions—and priced them at 66 percent of their adult counterparts. According to Agro, “Thonet could have designed for kings, but chose instead to design for the masses. His furniture was affordable yet beautiful and reflected the current taste in design.”

Prior to the shift from custom-sized to mass-produced products, no one bothered to measure the people who would be using the products—including the children—explains Stephen Stadelmeir, associate professor and chair of Carnegie Mellon’s Industrial Design Program. He explains that it wasn’t until World War I veterans were being discharged from the armed forces that their feet were measured for boots. “The army realized that you can’t win a ground war if boots don’t fit,” explains Stadelmeir. And it was only about 50 years ago, he explains, that a design subcategory called anthropometrics was developed to study the actual sizes and shapes of people—both adults and children.

This convergence of ideas—that children were built differently than adults and their developmental needs were different as well—spawned an era of tremendous growth in the children’s products industry that is thriving today.

“ The idea that children’s work is play was a big change in the 1950s,” says Agro, calling attention to another design moment: the wooden “mechanical horse” designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1944. According to Agro, the horse is an early example of a toy that exemplifies the idea that children like to use their imaginations. Decades later, “Children’s design has taken center stage,” says Agro, “and many parents want to surround their children with good design.”

Good Design vs. Cute Design
Mark Baskinger, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, applies and teaches a “ user-centered” approach to all design, including design for children. “Our approach at Carnegie Mellon places the end user, be that an adult or a child, at the epicenter of the project. We don’t look at what will sell best, but at what will best suit the end user’s needs,” says Baskinger.

During the past few years, Baskinger’s class has worked on several projects for local children’s furniture design companies. His students spent about half a semester on the projects.

“ The overall approach was to design from the child's perspective—identifying ways to enhance a child's interaction with other children, their environment, and ideas,” says Baskinger. The students’ prototypes were “field tested” by—who else?—children. Baskinger’s students observed kids at the Children’s School, which is the laboratory school operated by the University’s psychology department, while they used—or didn’t use—their prototypes.

In one project, students set out to create kid-sized storage for toys or clothes that would empower children to use their own skills and abilities without needing to depend on adults. One of the resulting products was a gently curved, low-hanging, maple coat rack that encourages autonomy.

Another project that focused on collaborative play resulted in the “Interactivity Table,” which combines a giant paper roll with easily accessible markers to encourage working together and sharing ideas. Baskinger says that when the prototype was placed in the Children’s School, the kids walked right up to it and immediately began drawing.

Standing on Pittsburgh’s historic North Shore is another testament to good design for children: the newly expanded Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. “We’re atypical, compared to other children’s museums,” says Jane Werner, executive director. “We think children appreciate good design, just like adults do, and we don’t do cute here.” Instead, the Children’s Museum tries to create beautiful spaces for both children and adults—what Werner describes as “good design for all ages.” And they succeeded, having recently won major accolades from the magazines Metropolis and Metropolitan Home, as well as unprecedented attendance since the expanded museum opened in early 2005.

Werner says that the museum was redesigned based on the philosophy that playing with “real stuff” helps children to better understand the world in which they live. On an ongoing basis, the museum’s design team creates prototypes for all the exhibits, which are then tested with children with the help of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE), now housed within the museum. Werner explains that the UPCLOSE team studies how children learn in the museum environment, watches the children interact with the exhibits, and then makes suggestions and changes.

“ Designers have a responsibility to provide good play opportunities for kids,” says Werner. And that means providing kids with the kinds of toys that tap their limitless imaginations. “When you think about toys, blocks are a classic example of a wonderful toy for young children. We want to be more about blocks, not toys that limit your options and imagination, not toys with just one answer.”

Enter the World of Childhood
Innovation and imagination are inherent in many of the objects within the kid size exhibition, which includes some of the best-designed and most significant children’s furnishings from around the world. Most of the objects were selected by the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, where the show originated. Others were added by Agro to update the show while including more American products.

Using the good design principles behind many of the objects in the show, Agro and a design team also transformed the exhibition into six playful environments that are distinguished by theme, color,
and sound, and divided by custom-made 14-foot “houses,” each with two doors—one sized especially for adults, and another sized just for children. Agro believes that adults walking through the exhibition—re-entering the world of children through the six colorful custom-built houses—will remember how it feels to be “small and carefree, without any worries.” And children will unleash their imaginations by designing their own furniture, testing unusual toys, and doing what children do best: learning through play.

Generous support for the presentation in Pittsburgh of kid size: The Material World of Childhood has been provided by members of The Associates of Carnegie Museum of Art and the Henry L. Hillman Fund. Additional support has been provided by Eat’n Park Restaurants and Parkhurst Dining Services and by the Aetna Foundation. General support for the museum's exhibition program is provided by The Heinz Endowments, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and Allegheny Regional Asset District.

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