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Review> Power Play
Gabriela Burkhalter on the book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America.
Courtesy University of Minnesota Press

Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America
Amy F. Ogata
University of Minnesota Press, $105

Designing the Creative Child is an in depth essay on how and why creativity and childhood became so closely linked after the Second World War, and why middle class parents became almost obsessed with raising creative children.

Amy F. Ogata, professor of modern Architectural and Design History and Material Culture of Childhood at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, describes how children’s capacity for imagination and independent thinking became a widespread and cohesive national value by the mid-1970s. Once an elitist concept, creativity was adopted by the middle class after the Second World War, then became a tool to strengthen national competitiveness and successively transformed into an ideal and icon. With the Cold War and the triumph of consumer culture, schools, magazines, television, museums, and the toy manufacturing companies actively and successfully designed, shaped, and merchandized the image of the creative child.

Pushed by the television, educational institutions and discourses, the image of the creative child proliferated throughout the public and private space. Ogata dedicates a chapter to each, as she calls it, “material object”: the educational toy, creative living at home, building creativity in postwar schools, learning imagination in art and science. She evaluates the experts’ discourse on parenting, psychology, and anthropology such as Benjamin Spock, Margaret Mead, and others. Their contributions were widely received and fashioned the image of the natural child as raised in an inclusive, flexible, and democratic culture—in opposition to the oppressed Soviet child living in dictatorship.

Young suburban families felt responsible and challenged to raise “better” children. They adopted the educational toy mostly designed in abstract forms and manufactured in wood, designed to teach physical skills or develop cognitive abilities—and were able to afford these expensive toys. Toy companies, such as Creative Playthings, relied on contemporary artists and designers and became linked with sophisticated taste and modern aesthetics.

Immediately after the Second World War, the nation was challenged by the extensive need for new school buildings and the multiplication of teaching and building concepts. European architects brought new concepts to the U.S., opening a field for experimentation with the aim to create “open” and flexible learning situations. After the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik space satellites in 1957, concerns about the competitiveness of the nation’s education rose dramatically. The government made efforts to strengthen the science curriculum at public schools, to foster experimentation and creative learning.

Parallel to this, in the late 1940s museums took leadership in shaping the “domestic landscape” for middle-class families by setting aesthetic standards and promoting new models. Museums such as the Walker Art’s Center in 1947 (Idea House II) and MoMA in 1949 with Marcel Breuer’s installation of a model house in the sculpture garden, outlined a postwar vision of domesticity that included spaces solely dedicated to children. It reflected the experts’ advice to provide enough play space at home to encourage a child’s inner life and creativity. Postwar parents shared more space and time with their children, family ties became more and more normative, and gender roles were further inscribed into domestic space. “Expressive creativity” became the most prominent objective of art education, at home, school, and museums. Art education’s higher goal was to improve society at large. Museums, such as the Met (in 1941) and the Art Institute of Chicago, pioneered Junior Museums and art programs. Under Victor d’Amico’s (1904–1987) direction, MoMA’s art program reached international renown for liberating children’s creativity and pushing them to explore materials, textures, and imagination. Starting in 1942, the Children’s Festival of Modern Art emphasized the joy and playfulness of making and learning about art. Coined Holiday Art Carnival, it traveled to the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958 and Expo 67 in Montréal and then continued to operate at the Harlem School of Art.

Designing the Creative Child is a valuable and inspiring resource for scholars and professionals in child related research, it lays out how the image of creativity became ubiquitous, from Curious George to children’s furniture to the museums’ art programs. The image is mostly complete, but some questions remain: Why didn’t the cultural elite develop a more critical attitude toward consumerism? When and why did the ideal of creativity become a cliché to then fade almost completely? What is the relationship of the Creative Child to American culture at large? How was it possible that the Beat Generation and the emerging suburban middle class seemed to have shared, for a moment, the same ideals—yet with very different results and consequences?

Gabriela Burkhalter

Gabriela Burkhalter is an urban planner.