From The Design Critic:
The Design of Childhood


This week Brick & Wonder presents an interview with Alexandra Lange (AL), Author of The Design of Childhood, conducted by Jude Fulton (JF), co-founder of creative community, Mosss.

I first met Alexandra when she was a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and we sat down recently to discuss her new book, The Design of Childhood. She is an accomplished architecture critic whose essays, reviews, and profiles have appeared in numerous design publications including Architect, Curbed, Domus, Metropolis, as well as in New York Magazine, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. She has taught design criticism at the School of Visual Arts and New York University and is author of several books on design.

I just became really fascinated, terrified, and intrigued by all of these accessories and toys that were coming into my house.

JF: Hi Alexandra, so nice to speak to you today. Let’s begin with ‘why.’ What compelled you to write this book? It seems to be very rare that schools like Harvard or Yale talk or teach about spaces for children.

AL: I had a baby and I learned that you don’t stop being a design critic when you’re home with your baby. In fact, children have this whole world of stuff that you haven’t encountered before as a sentient being. You’ve encountered these objects in your childhood but you weren’t thinking about it then. And I just became really fascinated, terrified, and intrigued by all of these accessories and toys that were coming into my house—objects associated with having a baby, and then a toddler, and then a smaller child. I wanted to know where these things came from, who made them, and how they were intended to impact my child.

Bri-Plax Interlocking Building Cubes, A Hilary Page Design. Made in England. 1939.

JF: It’s really refreshing to me how you speak and write from your personal life experiences, and bring them into your critical writing. Thank you! In one section of your book you talk about the power of raw, undefined materials like cardboard to produce a host of potential play.

AL: Yes, one of the materials that I became fascinated by when I was writing the book was cardboard. At my kids’ school, they have this great activity at the end of the day called Cardboard Creations where they can build things out of shoeboxes and paper tubes. My daughter actually wanted to have a Cardboard Creations birthday party, so collected all of our cardboard boxes and when the kids came over, I gave them paint, glitter, and glue and said, “Make something!” The kids were incredibly excited and engaged, and it didn’t even cross their minds that this was an unusual birthday party activity. They just enjoyed themselves and went home with their creations. I feel like there are a lot of opportunities for parents to introduce creativity into their homes once they are aware of these issues and then hopefully look for this sort of greater engagement in their communities.

Zoob Play System Components
Reptile built with the Zoob Play System

JF: What did you learn about children and color?

AL: The first modernist playrooms generally used primary colors with the occasional addition of green because there was a sense of teaching children the basic elements— the square, the circle, and the triangle à la the Bauhaus and the ABC’s of color. It isn’t until the Post-War Era that pink and blue become so strongly associated with boys and girls and a dialogue begins about the colors that should be introduced into the décor of their respective bedrooms.

JF: What about color and gender?

AL: I found that colors were often associated with themes; it wasn’t just that boys’ bedrooms tended to be blue and brown but that they were blue and brown and cowboy themed. There was a whole narrative element to the theme that accompanies the color that ultimately is more detrimental to creativity than the color itself. The idea of kids growing up in an atmosphere with a pre-set narrative about what they like and what they might aspire to be seems like more of a problem than a strong color in a room. Kids need to be able to pick their own games and find their own heroes.

Island Area and Media Lab, Vittra School Telefonplan, Stockholm, Sweden, 2011, Rosan Bosch Studio. Photograph by Kim Wendt.

JF: If you had advice for interior designers creating spaces for children indoors (playrooms, bedrooms) what might you offer?

AL: First, I’d urge interior designers to go and observe children either in a classroom or playground setting and take notes. I’d also encourage them to play in a sandbox or wood pile and put things together in a really naïve and almost unthinking manner in the way that children do. I’ve found that a lot of the designers that I’ve researched have a common thread in that they had a parent who was a carpenter and as a result, they were accustomed to working with an abundance of material in a non-productive way at a young age. When it comes to designing interior spaces for children, some elements include using open shelving and bins so kids can see inside and put things away for themselves, wall accessories that encourage interaction like blackboards, whiteboards, chalkboards, and bulletin boards, and most importantly, big open floor areas that can be used as an active surface. While miniature tables and chairs are cute, they are not necessary as most kids end up doing the majority of play on the floor.

Science Lab and the Mountain, Vittra School Telefonplan, Stockholm, Sweden, 2011, Rosan Bosch Studio.

JF: How did you go about observing children without disrupting them or making them feel watched and act unnaturally?

AL: I found that when conducting my research in classrooms or playgrounds that it is actually easy for me to be ignored by kids. Perhaps because I’m small and look like, and am - a mom, I’m completely non-threatening and thus was ignored by children in the best possible way and just observe them. I was non-disruptive in the environments that I was studying.

JF: Are you saying that you’re the Jane Goodall of kindergartens?

AL: (Laughing) I don’t know. Part of me wishes that I’d had the time to do that kind of deep research. This is a journalist book—I use a lot of research done by academics. I did feel like something in me worked really well for this project. I can’t put my finger on it completely. It’s funny because in my persona as a critic, I’ve been told that people who haven’t met me find me scary which I think is hilarious because, as anyone who has ever met me knows, I am the opposite of scary. It’s one of those weird conundrums of personality where I am simultaneously scary and completely non-threatening.

JF: After writing your book do you have any surprising insights or things you do differently now as a parent?

AL: I think that being a mother has helped me as a critic because when you have kids you don’t have time for bullshit. You’re always trying to weed through all the information the school provides and determine which items you actually have to respond to. This is a great mindset for criticism and determining which information is actually relevant and important.

JF: Yes, it’s a huge forcing function on your time and priorities! Could you share some details about your upcoming projects or topics you hope to explore in the future?

AL: Since writing my book, I’ve become very interested in design for teenagers. I wrote a story for Curbed in December about how our cities—specifically, parks and public spaces—are designed to accommodate teenagers. Right now I’m working on a story on teenagers in relationship to libraries, as these are the only public indoor spaces where teens can go without having to purchase something in exchange for use of the space. About 15 years ago, the Los Angeles Public Library set up one of the first teen spaces, so I’m researching the history of library design as it applies to teenagers and how they are evolving to accommodate a more digital world.

Los Angeles Public Library

JF: What are you thinking about next? Any dream projects?

AL: I do have a fantasy project related to the book in mind. One of the designers I enjoyed learning about the most is Aldo van Eyck, who designed over 700 public playgrounds in Amsterdam in the Post-War Era. Each playground was designed with a set of pieces—such as metal climbing frames and concrete sandboxes—and each park is different. I’d love to collaborate with an animator to create an animated short documentary called “Aldo and the 700 Playgrounds” that explores why he was drawn to playgrounds and illustrates all of the elements that went into each of his designs.

JF: Thank you, Alexandra!

Alexandra’s book The Design of Childhood is available now here.

This article originally appeared on Mosss, a thoughtful, creative community for design lovers where you can discover insights from world-renowned creatives.