Child’s Play: 3 Books Delve Into Design for Kids

Each book takes a unique look at how designers have embraced the challenge of creating products for the pint-size consumer.
design children books

Artist Laurie Simmons’s Kaleidoscope House, featured in Design for Children Courtesy Phaidon


No matter how times change and what technology brings, children inhabit a world full of wonder and discovery. Three new books take different looks at how designers have embraced the challenge of creating products for the pint-size consumer. Along the way, they offer perspectives on the values ascribed to children within their societies.

Serious Play (Yale University Press, $50)—edited by Monica Obniski, curator of 20th- and 21st-century design at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Darrin Alfred, curator of architecture, design, and graphics at the Denver Art Museum—compiles critical essays centered on the midcentury Modern era through the lens of youthful play and creativity. The collection’s six authors track this theme by examining not only contemporaneous toys and children’s furniture but also the ways that invention and whimsy inspired the movement’s luminaries and helped define midcentury design.

Curbed architecture critic Alexandra Lange’s newest volume, The Design of Childhood (Bloomsbury, $30), explores a children’s realm that expands with time. Starting with blocks and taking us through the home, the classroom, the playground, and finally the inhospitable city, Lange explores what she calls “building metaphors” embedded in every aspect of childhood. Children’s characteristically voracious appetites for discovery, freedom, and creative play, she argues, are best served by designers who view kids as independent, curious people rather than subjects in need of diversion.

Design for Children (Phaidon, $60), an elegantly executed and encyclopedic tome edited by Kimberlie Birks, details 455 objects designed with children in mind, from the antique to the contemporary, classified by uses and indexed by designer, name, and manufacturer. By featuring classic toys like Friedrich Froebel’s Froebel Gifts (1837) alongside newer ones such as Libor Motyčka’s Blocky Cars (2014), Birks highlights aesthetic affinities that traverse cultures, movements, techniques, and materials. Blond wood, simple shapes, and primary colors may reign supreme in the eyes of design-conscious parents today, but as Birks shows, such preferences are nothing new. Beyond modern wooden toys and their classic antecedents, Birks includes plenty of eye-catchingly offbeat pieces, like a chair that is also a basketball hoop and a Czech toy ominously named Devil Box.

You may also enjoy “Year in Review 2018: 9 Lessons from Architecture, Design, and Cities.”

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Categories: Design