Furniture made especially for children is not a modern phenomenon but has existed independent of the ways in which adult views of children have changed. At the same time, its form reflects or rises from changing pedagogical views of childhood. Children's furniture has historically been defined not just by scale but also by pedagogical purpose.
The design of children's furniture is influenced by period, material, form, function, pedagogical views, and children's games and status. It reflects the grown-up world's imagining of children's needs and also its ideals of order, DIS CIPLINE, HYGIENEPLAY, and even stimulation. Children's furniture often tries to anticipate children's behavior– mostly proscribed behavior.
One can distinguish between children's furniture in private homes and children's furniture in institutions such as nurseries and KINDERGARTENS. The distinction reflects the identity of each sphere. Children's furniture in the home often reflects the contemporary attitude to interior design and material. Institutional furniture tends to reflect the contemporary attitude toward pedagogy and hygiene.
Of the children's furniture that has survived from earlier periods, chairs tend to show the most variety. (A great deal of children's furniture has been lost, but the oldest preserved chairs originate from the late 1500s and the early 1600s.) A Greek vase painting dated 400 B.CE. shows a child in a high chair facing a woman sitting on a stool. The earliest known example of a low child's chair originates from the Viking age. The remnants of the chair were found during excavations in Sweden in 1981. The low chair has been known throughout most of Europe. Before the Viking chair was found, the oldest existing example of a low child's chair was in a family portrait in a 1601 Swiss tapestry.
These examples indicate that special furniture for children was made at a very early stage in the history of furniture, and that equally early two basic models of children's chairs existed: the high and the low model. Scale is what most distinguishes children's furniture from that of grownups. The sitting height of children's furniture is mostly either above or beneath the average grown-up sitting height. When children's chairs are built for pedagogical purposes, they tend to follow the low strategy to make children self-sufficient. The high strategy, on the other hand, puts the child at the level of the grown-ups at a table and enables the child to learn how to behave there.
Children's furniture stresses the social position of the child in relation to both the environment and to adults. To have an individual piece of furniture indicates status and the right to a status in the home or institution. The very existence of children's furniture promotes the child's status in the home and institution, because the furniture is the property of the child and because the furniture physically occupies space–a choice that excludes other furniture and reflects a priority, stressing the child's social importance. If a child has a piece of furniture of his or her own, this acknowledges the status and rank of the child. The special form of children's furniture signals that childhood is considered an important period.
The production of children's furniture for schools was an important innovation. School classes in the old village schools had long, narrow benches on which the children sat close together. Not until the second half of the nineteenth century was the first pedagogical school furniture designed: school desks with room enough between seat and table for children to barely stand. Classrooms were small, and the new desks minimized the space between rows.
In the late 1800s and the early 1900s many desk designs were considered. So-called school hygiene supporters made detailed descriptions of the correct way for a student to sit when writing, reading, or doing arithmetic or needlework. From these, they calculated designs, relating the height of the desk and the distance between the desk and the seat to the size of the child. There were different views on about whether to bolt the desk to the floor or allow it to be pulled aside when the room was cleaned, and about designing desks in differing heights adapted to differing ages and sizes. The choice between single desks or twin desks, however, was very often made on the basis of economics.
With the development of nurseries and kindergartens in the beginning of the twentieth century, children's public space became a focus of experiments with small, movable furniture. Between World Wars I and II, a group of creative and progressive schools used individual chairs and tables, allowing new pedagogical opportunities in the classroom. The traditional organization–a master's desk facing rows of pupils' desks–continued, however, into the 1950s in Europe but had largely disappeared in the United States by then.
Light, air, and a clean environment were the 1930s ideals of European pedagogical architecture. They were meant to produce healthy, clean, sound children. The first nurseries and kindergartens were models of clinical hygiene and sanitation, derived from hospital clinics. Their furniture was designed for easy cleaning in order to minimize the risk of infection. Not only hygienic precautions, but also the practical organization of the nurseries and kindergartens were intended to form the children. Furniture built to a child's scale was meant to make children active and resourceful. Children were to learn how to organize their own playthings on childsized shelves and bookcases. Moreover, they were to learn how to wash themselves at washbasins built to their height.
The purpose of playing has been perceived differently through the ages. It may be considered, for example, to have social value or to help in motor development or to be of value in its own right. Research on children and the design of children's playthings and furniture between 1930 and 1960 shows that they were intended to prepare the child for the grown-up world and the working sphere. Therefore constructive playthings and junction furniture were popular and supported by the dominant psychologists and pedagogues.
Scandinavian furniture designers between 1930 and 1960 followed the lead of NURSERY SCHOOLS, socially engaged designers, and experts in child rearing regarding the child's need to play. It was generally accepted that children liked to use furniture in their PLAY. The first educated furniture designers in Scandinavia began to make children's furniture when they had children themselves and they began to attach importance to the idea that children should be able to use their furniture for more than just sitting in (e.g., to stimulate their imagination or to use as play equipment). Previously, children's furniture for nurseries and kindergartens had been made by constructing architects and consequently was designed from a technical point of view, resulting in adult furniture scaled down to a child's size.
The youth revolution in 1968 and the changing views of authority changed pedagogy and the dominant perception of the child's world, moving both in an anti-authoritarian direction. These changing values were reflected in children's furniture, which now was designed for play and relaxed behavior.
Although children's furniture in the private home has a long history, children's furniture in the public sphere is a more recent phenomenon. On the other hand, all furniture originally made for the private home was made for the upper classes. It was not until the twentieth century that mass production allowed children's furniture–like TOYS–to be made for the middle classes. At the same time children and childhood came to be taken more seriously than they had been previously, creating a greater focus on and demand for children's furniture and toys.
Today the difference between the public and private sphere has been minimized since most children attend nurseries and kindergartens, encountering the same kinds of furniture there as they do at home. Contemporary furniture designers do not care whether children's furniture is used in nurseries, kindergartens, or private homes. It is primarily the spirit of the time that determines the understanding of the form, function, and creation of children's furniture.
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Kevill-Davies, Sally. 1991. Yesterday's Children: The Antiques and History of Childcare. Woodbridge, UK: Antique Collector's Club.