The little things in life matter
A 'Kid Size' design show opens in Glasgow next week. Deedee Cuddihy reports.
Kid Size is an exhibition that looks at a myriad of objects designed specifically for children. It begins as early as the 14th century with an embroidered panel from the Burrell Collection in Glasgow that shows the Virgin Mary taking her first steps in a wooden baby walker, and ends in the present day with a brightly coloured Fisher-Price plastic musical playchair.
The exhibition, on tour from the renowned Vitra Design Museum in Germany, where a number of the excellent Glasgow 1999 shows originated, was three years in the making and is accompanied by a huge catalogue crammed with illustrations and photographs of children and kid-size objects from around the world, as well as essays on the history and development of this fascinating field of design.
As the curators note, although the widest range of kid-specific goods continues to be designed in the materially rich west, many examples - and some ingenious ones - are to be found in less well off countries.
Photographs taken in one of Africa's poorer communities, for example, show an improvised pram made from an old maize bag, timber slats and four wooden wheels and children making sand castles using halved, empty coconut shells. Meanwhile, we learn that in modern day China, parents are, apparently, saving a fortune on fancy disposable nappies by putting their babies in special pants with an opening at the back.
The exhibition, which is having its first British showing at the Lighthouse, consists of almost 100 mainly functional objects, free-standing and set out on large islands of wavy wooden decking. The fact that the objects are on open display does make touching a terrible temptation for visitors of all ages but this is strictly a hands-off show.
The items, gathered from all over the world and ranging from museum pieces to things that are still in everyday use, are grouped under five headings: Sleeping, Basic Functions (relating to the daily care of children), Playing, Mobility and Learning.
"Sleeping" includes simple, woven mats, a little ammock from Brazil, a foldaway cardboard cot from Denmark and a very clever combined adult-size rocking chair baby's cradle designed in Italy. "Basic Functions" reveals a gem of a 300-year-old wooden toddler seat from Glasgow Museums, enclosed in a richly decorated box-like structure with space underneath for a concealed chamber pot or warming hot brick. There's a modern Japanese baby bath chair and a boy's carved wooden stool from New Guinea. (The curators know it's for a boy because, traditionally, females in New Guinea have to sit on the ground.) "Playing" takes in a 1997 safety-improved copy of the classic Victorian rocking horse and a splendid German-made toy grocery shop from 1950.
And in "Mobility" there are all manner of baby carriers including slings from Peru, woven bags from Equador and baskets from Venezuela as well as fancy prams and a Vespa-style pedal scooter.
A traditional school desk, manufactured in Glasgow circa 1880, is shown alongside considerably more modern and user-friendly desks in the "Learning" section.
Visitors are encouraged to cast a critical eye over the objects on display and decide whether or not the designs serve their purpose - also to note how designs vary from country to country and then examine how and why some of them have changed over the years.
Although the exhibition itself is hands off, the education programme designed by Lighthouse staff to go along with it is just the opposite. Schools' workshops aimed at Primary 4s to Secondary 2s will take place during the first two weeks of April. (Other children and families can sign up for similar workshops during the Easter holidays.) School groups of up to 20 pupils can come along to the Lighthouse for a whole day, starting off with a guided tour of the show, followed by a structured activity incorporating critical work, design and technology - and even a bit of marketing.
Classes will get the chance to design and make giant books, soft-bodied character dolls or weirdly shaped miniature beds. Julia Fenby and Wilma Eaton from the Lighthouse education department promise that the workshops will be intensive and challenging for teachers as well as pupils.