In art, architecture, and design, creativity is often referred to as an abstract concept, an intangible idea. Usually mentioned in relation to nimble thought processes and innovative schemes, creativity is also connected with concrete objects displaying originality, resourcefulness, and ingenious design. “Admired as inventiveness, problem solving, insightfulness, originality, and discovery of personal potential, creativity encompasses a broad variety of meanings,” Amy F. Ogata writes (1). It is an “elastic term,” she adds, one that is “difficult to define and to measure with any precision” (193). Yet in Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America Ogata traces with conviction the important role played by this elusive concept and locates it within the physical world surrounding the postwar child. In the introductory chapter, “Constructing Creativity in Postwar America,” she asserts that creativity and the creative child were themselves constructs conjured by adults during the postwar period to help educate and shape the next generation, but also to appease and allay fears in a world burdened by the Cold War and to offer an outlet for hopes for a better, more positive future. The concept of creativity was used widely—literally consumed—in informational publications and in advertisements to sell ideas as well as objects. Most important, creativity indicated “flexibility,” the possibility of adaptation to any future environment. Creativity and related concepts, such as inventiveness and imagination, were used both as strategies in design thinking and as guiding principles in education. As Ogata notes, creativity and similar traits were also hailed as specifically American and as hallmarks of American democracy.
Four chapters in her book locate this immaterial concept in objects and in physical surroundings designed for children during the postwar period. Chapter 2, “Educational Toys and Creative Playthings,” describes the ways in which adults deliberately constructed the needs of young clients to extend prewar notions of self-improvement through play to include aspects of psychology, pedagogy, and art. Simultaneously, abstraction, the characteristic trait of American art in the postwar period, became a desired aspect of play and provided a forceful example of creative expression. Images of consumer goods, new materials such as plastics, and an abundance of household items and playthings inundated the market and provided varied examples of what it meant to be creative. The products manufactured by the company Creative Playthings Inc., founded in New York City in 1945, included wooden toys such as “Hollow Blocks” and the “Rocking Beauty Hobbyhorse” as well as larger play environments made of concrete and meant for the outdoors. These products exemplified the quest for artistry and invention through play and imaginative expression.
Chapter 3, “Creative Living at Home,” looks at the ways in which the postwar building boom, which addressed the demand for more housing options and faster construction, included attempts to reinvent the house to embody “well-balanced and creative living.” For example, even in a small apartment children were allotted their own space—a playroom—and house plans revolved around communal areas that could be used for play. In this way the home was more than a protective shelter; it embraced aspects of accessibility and flexibility. As Ogata shows, children's literature echoed this new focus. In Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, the young protagonists take over the house in acts of imagination or play. In life as in fiction, children were encouraged to take center stage in these journeys of transformation, journeys that made the house a more creative place. These expressions of creativity within the house reflected the aspirations held for the next generation, but they were equally indicative of the parents’ dreams and wishes for themselves.
The discourse on creativity in American education, centered on the romantic notion of the “creative child,” was deployed in the search for new methods of learning and materialized in the plans and furnishings of many public schools. Chapter 4, “Building Creativity in Postwar Schools,” shows that like home design, school design was aimed at nourishing individuality through aspects of informality and unprecedented openness, as can be seen in Perkins and Will's influential Heathcote Elementary School in Scarsdale, New York (1953). Furthermore, while earlier postwar schools emulated domestic settings, during the 1960s innovative school plans were modeled on the corporate office. Beyond the embodiment of educational theories, the designers of schools sought to include innovative planning lessons in organization and management and incorporate them in the design of the new schoolhouse. This chapter is perhaps the book's most engaging, as in this discussion Ogata departs most radically from the close definition of creativity to describe environments that were vastly innovative. The architectural environments (open to air and closer to nature) and their flexible arrangements (movable tables and chairs), along with experiments with innovative technologies (audiovisual materials and air-conditioning), animated aspects of the child's life, making it truly “creative” in the broad sense of forming one's own environment.
The final chapter, “Learning Imagination in Art and Science,” examines how exhibitions presented at museums and art centers, such as the Children's Fair at the Walker Art Center (1948) and the Exploratorium in San Francisco (1969), provided outlets for experimentation, self-expression, and free play. Situated between the school and the home, these exhibits encouraged explorations in both science and the arts. The goals were to educate children by drawing on their subjective experience and to develop their personal expression to improve their problem-solving skills. This method was, Ogata writes, “an attempt to mold a new generation to accept the complex demands of citizenship in the era of the Cold War” (186).
Designing the Creative Child is one of numerous books published in the past few years highlighting the intersections of the architecture and design of the home and the space of the family with the social and political culture of the postwar period. Several volumes published in the University of Minnesota Press's series Architecture, Landscape, and American Culture focus on themes of democracy, race, consumption, and religion, examining how these were reflected within postwar architecture and design in the United States.1 Designing the Creative Child amplifies this series. Ogata's book does not focus on a particular building typology but rather follows an abstract idea and the ways in which it has been made manifest in manufactured objects and in the built environment. This book is most successful in mapping the concept of creativity and following with great precision its dissemination within architecture and design in postwar American society, a society hopeful about the future yet fraught with fears for the next generation. America's policy makers, educators, designers, and parents toiled to imbue values of freedom and to establish notions of innovation in education and play, both in school and at home.
Yet while Ogata stresses that “creativity” has multiple meanings, in her book those varied meanings are all constructive and positive. While an optimistic outlook prevails, one must ask: Could there be negative aspects to this pursuit of creativity? Acts of play become pleasurable when they are rebellious—could creativity become destructive? Designing the Creative Child successfully argues that environments and objects can indeed enhance creativity. At the same time, questions regarding the sources of creativity remain unasked. Is creativity located within the individual, or can it be learned, stimulated through designed objects and environments? Just as artists get lost in making, one wonders, is it not precisely when the preoccupation with inventiveness is left behind and forgotten that one becomes most naturally creative?