As a father with kids who like stuff and me also liking stuff, I have a lot of stuff. In my childrens’ rooms is an embarrassing amount of stuffed animals, a tumult of toys, a menagerie of tiny chairs and knee-high desks. Much of this stuff is, let’s face, it aesthetically worthless. Most of it is plastic, which means this aesthetic worthlessness will be around for millennia. Design for children, too often, has been conflated with bright colors, bold shapes, and shoddy construction. But in a new book Design for Children, author Kimberlie Birks showcases more than 450 designs for children from some of the century’s greatest visual minds from Phillippe Starck to Piero Lissoni. We recently chatted with Birks about what her deep dive into children’s design taught her and asked her to pick her favorite designs from the book.
Do you find children’s design has more in common with its contemporary adult designs or with children’s design through time? That is, is a toy made in 1950 more similar to a desk made in 1950 or a toy made in 1980?
Children’s objects are often a signal of the times, reflecting both the evolution of the design industry and shifts in public perception. Fascinatingly, much of the design history of the twentieth century can be traced through developments in children’s furniture, as their smaller scale was ideal for designers seeking to test new materials and processes. From the wood and tubular steel constructions of the Bauhaus in the 1920s, to the plastic pioneers of the 1960s, the remarkable technical, material and aesthetic innovations made in design for children reflected—and often led—the wider design field. As such, children’s design can be often seen to have more in common with its contemporary adult designs than with children’s designs from other eras.
What elements make a design for children successful? Are they any different than what makes a design for an adult successful?
As anyone who has spent significant time around kids will know, durability, cleanability and safety are essential, but good design for children should also invite an imaginative relationship. Objects that are open-ended and not entirely prescriptive as to how they can or should be used encourage kids to engage with them, exercising their brains and bodies in a variety of ways. Exceptional children’s objects always respond to their specific needs, rather than simply mimicking an adult design at a smaller scale. This is why noteworthy creations often come from designers who are themselves parents.
How many of these designs have you actually tested with children?
While we did not conduct field research, the designers definitely did. Many of the objects in the book were created by parents who, dissatisfied by the options available, took matters into their own hands to produce toys and furniture that were tailored to their firsthand experience of children. Objects like the Babysitter by BabyBjörn (1961) and the Tripp Trapp chair (1972) have become classics because their design responds to the specific needs of children so well, while clever toys like SumBlox (2014) grew out of a teacher’s desire to help children learn early math skills. It was also nice to see that there are people like Renate Müller, who has been creating beautiful toys for children with physical and mental disabilities for decades.