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A century of Nordic designs for children

The Museum of Childhood’s delightful yet thought-provoking exhibition 'Century of the Child: Nordic Design for Children 1900 to Today' highlights how many Scandinavian objects, let alone the ideas behind them, have been assimilated into everyday lives in the UK

Photo of babies in bouncers
One, two, three .... and bounce!

Nowadays, Nordic designs can be found in homes, playgrounds and schools across the UK. From BRIO to LEGO, Marimekko and the Moomins, to innovative designs for children’s clothes, toys and furniture from ‘Nordic Icons’ such as Arne Jacobsen, IKEA, and Alvar Aalto to name but three, Nordic products are ubiquitous and hence often taken for granted.

But the Museum of Childhood’s delightful yet thought-provoking exhibition asks us to look at them again.

What also struck me about these iconic designs was how early on in the 20th century many were conceived. Concepts like child-centred spaces and furniture, adventure playgrounds, paid paternity leave, eco-designs for children - were thought up far earlier than we might imagine, and are still influential to this day

With its title borrowed from Swedish social theorist, Ellen Key’s ground-breaking book, The Century of the Child, first published in 1900, the exhibition picks up on her progressive views in its themes. Key (1849-1926) envisioned that during the 20th century, children would become the centre of adult’s attention. How right she was. Her ideas were revolutionary at the time, yet protecting and nurturing children is at the heart of our society today.

The exhibition is organised by themes such as Design for Living, Eco-innovations, and Creative Freedom and so on. I learn that at the start of the 20th century, Key advocated that children should be allowed to enjoy greater freedom, to be free from responsibilities, and to explore. She argued that “facts just slip away” but the lessons children learn from exploration endured.

Free play was considered an essential part of childhood development. Photos of the 1940s’ Junk Playground in Denmark that inspired Britain’s adventure playgrounds illustrate this. The playground that opened in Copenhagen in 1943 was eagerly awaited by children (boys only, it has to be said) who, the idea was, would shape it themselves as they played.

Escapism through stories - that endlessly exciting way to explore the world - featured in the exhibition via the Moomins of Tove Jansson’s books and comic strip, and the free-spirited Pippi Longstocking, “the strongest girl in the world” created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren.

After the first and second World Wars building programmes began in Nordic cities to clear slums and create healthier places to live. The new housing and often bigger homes meant that children could have their own dedicated spaces, which in turn cried out to be filled with child-friendly designs. Pieces of furniture dotted around the exhibition double as colourful animals for stacking or bouncing on or flipping over, to encourage children to move.

The unforgettable ‘Barnledig pappa’ (‘Maternity dad’) poster from 1978 was made to illustrate paid paternity leave - first given in Sweden in 1974. One of several Swedish campaign posters of the 1970s and 1980s showing men involved in everyday childcare activities, it contributed significantly to making the Swedish father a public figure.

Less visually arresting but also impressive, the Finnish Baby Box, spread out for us to see the clothes, blankets, bibs, brushes and bowls, was first given out to newborns in 1937. Finland was the first to create a ‘baby box’, a scheme that has been adopted globally - most recently in Scotland in the summer of 2017.

We slip down memory lane in an exhibition like this (as we happily do in the main museum, of course). There was the Tripp Trapp chair, Norwegian designer Peter Opsvik’s creation enjoyed by both my children, highchairs at first, later relocated to bedrooms; there was the mobile that hung in a bedroom; there too were those springy ‘babysitters’ and innovative baby carriers made by Baby Björn in the 1960s; and Lego, of course.

But more than a memory jog, this exhibition was inspiring, and really rather charming. And, last but not least, as you would expect from an exhibition of this kind, there are fun interactive displays for children to discover and enjoy for themselves.


Century of the Child: Nordic Design for Children 1900 to Today

V&A Museum of Childhood, London E2 9PA

Until 2 September 2018

For more information, CLICK HERE


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