Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 6, 2019
Megan Brandow-Faller, ed. Childhood by Design: Toys and the Material Culture of Childhood, 1700–Present Material Culture of Art and Design. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2018. 352 pp.; 42 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (9781501332029)

Childhood by Design contains a variety of essays that investigate the reasons toys exist. The design of childhood itself is examined, as well as the ways toys have helped form (and reform) our ideas about children. Commercial factors including manufacturing, marketing, and distribution have influenced toy creation and as a result the creation of children. The book also offers diverse topics, points of view, writing styles, and ideas about what an academic essay can be. In the introduction to the collection, editor Megan Brandow-Faller writes, “Childhood by Design seeks to fuse socio-historical studies of childhood (examining the tension between adult representations of childhood and the lived experiences of ‘real’ historical children) with art-historical and design-based studies of the material culture of childhood (typically prioritizing issues of authorship, technique, and style), drawing from the disciplinary methods and preoccupations of both fields” (3). However you choose to interpret this mission statement, seeking fusion proves a more achievable goal than arriving at it. Brandow-Faller announces that in this volume, toys will be “given agency . . . actively performing and constituting shifting discursive constellations surrounding childhood and children in the modern era” (3).

Any collection of separate entries, each written with different goals, different language use, and different levels of abstraction, risks having no cohesive core. The introduction promises entries “relating to the subversive thrust of postmodern doll studies.” But the authors seem to have delivered their contributions without knowing that was the assignment. Much of the writing is so academic that it tips into the unreadable, being full of more references and connections to other scholarly publications than original ideas and useful information. The twenty-one-page introduction alone has sixty-five notes.

An idea does not gain validity based on how many people have touched it before it lands in your hands. This is not a problem unique to the book or the authors; it is an industry-wide problem. Still, the range of approaches makes it difficult to know who the intended audience for the book is, and how to inhabit that intention while reading.

Entries include a wide range of ideas: Toys have been used to teach moral values as well as practical skills (Serena Dyer). Children play with dolls in subversive, exploratory ways (Ariane Fennetaux). Toys are educational and commercial (Sarah A. Curtis). Children’s books also have an adult audience (Andrea Korda). Play was an interdisciplinary practice at the Bauhaus (Michelle Millar Fisher). Expensive doll houses communicate architectural aspirations (Karen Stock and Katherine Wheeler). Miniature kitchens in Nuremberg promised play but delivered commerce (James E. Bryan). Toys made by children help us understand play (Lynette Townsend). Toys build (and will continue to build?) tomorrow’s colonialists both in the colonies and “at home” (Jakob Zollmann). Representations of folk-art toys marginalize traditional crafts and peasant cultures (Marie Gasper-Hulvat). The function of toys in China, and the play they allow, changed from fun to educational and then to state-building (Valentina Boretti). In addition to these, three entries stand out as achievements more nuanced and more complete in the information and interpretations they offer. They deliver new ways of considering existing interpretations, new interpretations, and even new information.

Colin Fanning’s “LEGO and the Commodification of Creativity” is both locally thoughtful and informative, while also being useful in advancing the larger book-wide themes. He investigates how the building blocks were shaped by both manufacturing limitations and consumer interests. Fanning offers his own firsthand reading of material culture, and does not rely on recycling and repackaging previous academic interpretations glued together with footnotes, as several other chapters do. He offers observations that link LEGO’s history to the introduction of plastics, changing ideas about gender, the presence of marketing as a design force, globalization, and the shift from the encouragement of abstract play to the mania for collecting. Even with all of the other published investigations about LEGO, Fanning’s observations venture into new territory.

Bryan Ganaway’s writing is immediate, clear, and effective. He explores the tensions between dolls functioning as commercial ventures and as tools to empower children, allowing them to develop their own play narratives. He adds layers of additional thinking (about consumer culture fueling the dissemination of feminist ideas, about doll making as a way toward financial independence for female doll makers, about the conflict between machine production and handcrafting) without complicating the clarity of his main points. Ganaway uses his introduction and conclusion not to announce his intentions and then claim success in achieving them, as so many academic papers do, but to expand the ideas about history developed in the body of the essay, and attach them to today’s world, making them useful in larger discussions about material culture.

Cathleen M. Giustino’s chapter on toys in Socialist Czechoslovakia is a beautiful piece of writing. It balances novel information, used to offer thought-provoking interpretations, with a clear point of view, and does so in an academically solid way that is also enjoyable reading. That toys can represent political ideals, leading to play that supports them (collective versus individual), seems like the kind of discussion, exciting to encounter and consider, that justifies the efforts of publishing. Giustino attaches obscure information (noncanonical designers and products) that deserves exploration and illumination alongside more familiar themes, allowing readers to appreciate the topic on its own or easily weave it into existing narratives.

Much of the book, in focusing on material culture, ignores the other factors involved in toy production (designers, manufacturers, materials and manufacturing methods, cost, distribution, commerce). These omissions cause the discussions to creep away from a balanced investigation toward opinion or fiction. Material culture studies are at their most effective when they start with objects and use an examination to reveal links to theory, abstract thought, academic investigation, and information. But they are less effective when they work in the other direction (start with an idea, find some sources, identify objects that substantiate them). This book includes scholarship that works in both directions, but too many entries seem to take the latter approach. There is scant conversation in this book about why any of the realities investigated might have happened. For a book anchored in material studies this seems surprising, especially when dealing with manufactured items that span so many materials and manufacturing advances. Did toys become more durable as consumers realized children are brutal? Or did they become more durable as we added plasticizers to PVC to make flexible dolls instead of brittle celluloid ones?

As a collection, Childhood by Design examines toys but detaches them from other adjacent and important realities in a way that undermines its authority. The book takes on the umbrella idea that the modern era invented manufactured toys, and with it, childhood. But we also simultaneously manufactured everything else, creating a new kind of adulthood. To leave this out implies that designing childhood was an intentional and independent effort.

Many of the flaws in Childhood by Design are not the fault of its publisher, editor, or contributing authors. Ours is a profession with expectations of the performance and publishing of research that force it to become ever more effete and disconnected from external audiences. If our goal in publishing is to fill the shelves of elite institutions, well done. This book will enrich many library collections and be consulted occasionally by academics looking for opportunities to fill their own work with ever more references. Considering the prohibitive cost of these limited-volume academic books, it can have no other future. But if we are trying to produce a legacy of research and thought that stays alive and meaningful, it needs to be read. Not by the occasional researcher, but by students and strangers and people out in the world. Can both happen at once? Of course, but only if we want it to. There is nothing wrong with this book. It just establishes a goal for itself, like many, many other similar books, that is limited in ways that seem unfair to the authors, the publishers, and the larger public. The flaws in Childhood by Design are not in the assembling, writing, and editing of the book. They belong instead to the world that created it, and the pressures that world exerts on its inhabitants.

Matthew Bird
Rhode Island School of Design