toy designer’s leftovers

Scrape the plates clean …initial thoughts from a toy designer’s leftovers

After closing down Learning Materials Workshop office/studio, ending forty years of toy production, I find myself at home with a studio full of marooned materials, abandoned samples and jilted junk – wood, plastic, cloth, rubber, silicon, fur, mylar, stone, foam, marble, and many questions.  Since I am not presently manufacturing playthings for the “market”, I am freer to fiddle – to play with these orphaned forms. I am not sure what to call this activity or, the results of this fooling around but I feel it is a serious endeavor and mostly pleasurable.   I have been taking  photos on my cell phone, documenting some “stops” in the play process when I feel partially satisfied or ready to try something else. Since the images do not denote scale one could imagine a sliding scale- from architectural structures to miniature playscapes.  I will see where this goes. For the next few months, I will be adding images – playing with possibilities or perhaps just playing.


Carolyn Pratt Unit Blocks on Steriods

Yto Barrada sculpture 2010
wood and paint

“Her [Ytp Barrada] presentation of Lyautey’s modernization project in the guise of a children’s toy introduces a latent sense of destruction and disorder, and raises questions around the role of aesthetics and style in a colonial context” – The Met

I can playfully imagine Lyautey Unit Blocks, recently purchased by The Met, fitting in scale somewhere between the smaller size of Carolyn Pratt’s plain wood Unit Blocks designed around 1913 for the City and Country School in NYC and Marshall Herbert Lyautey’s large urban development programs in Morocco. This is simply a scale comparison and does not consider the important political questions raised by Barrada in her installation.

Lyautey developed these ideas with architect Henri Prost from 1912-1925 as experimental models for the modern 20th century in France and in the French colonies. Curiously, Carolyn Pratt was also interested in the design of urban life and the creative ways that children used her Unit Blocks to reconstruct their ideas of their local city neighborhood.

“The space between thinking and doing…” Olafur Eliasson


I was intrigued by the Green Light Workshop presented at the 2017 Venice Art Biennale. Although the final object is already delineated by elisson’s instructions, the process of working with materials in a group setting has its own form of creativity.

“olafur eliasson brings his green light workshop to the venice art biennale 2017. first presented at TBA21 in vienna last year, the artistic workshop responds to challenges arising from mass displacement and migration, shinning a light for asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. participants are taught to fabricate green light lamps designed by eliasson, and take part in a wider educational program of creativity and shared learning.”

Design Boom

Stacking Blocks – Uncertainty and Joy in Play and Architecture

I thought about the inherent but delightful contradiction of the building toy after reading Edwin Heathcote’s article. Architectural structures are designed to endure but building toys, by definition are meant to be impermanent –they go up, they collapse and they go up again. And, fortunately young children can be imaginative and provocative in their thinking when they play with building toys without having to answer to commercial concerns….will it collapse… how much will it cost… will anyone like it?

“When people buy a home, you might think, they want to see permanence, solidity, not collapse. So how are architects using these aesthetics to inform an architecture that can be both commercial and provocative?”

“The finest example might be Herzog & de Meuron’s 56 Leonard in New York’s Tribeca.”

“There is something in all these buildings that appears to suggest the possibility of collapse-the Jenga-like challenge of balance – but which also embodies a questioning of our increasing dependence on the digital. They represent an aesthetic rupture, a momentary loss of faith. The divergence from the certainty of much construction is intriguing, a sense that ultimately architecture is play, at its most basic a thrill in the stacking of one element on top of another. Perhaps what appears to be a foreboding of fragmentation and fear is, in fact, a rediscovery of a sense of joy.”

Quotes from Edwin Heathcote “The skyscraper architects who find inspiration in disintegration”, Financial Times, February 26, 2016

Toys for young children in the Trump era

Trump’s Tower of Babble Remember, you can knock it down and build something wonderful.

A few useful things to consider when designing or purchasing toys in the Trump era.

  • toys that encourage children to question. “what would happen if…?”
  • toys that present facts that children can verify.”This block really fell down. I saw it happen!”
  • toys that do not glitter like gold
  • toys that celebrate diversity
  • toys that encourage sustained thinking
  • toys that provoke imaginative ideas
  • toys that focus on quality over quantity


Deconstructing Trump


victor enrich envisions ‘phalus 2020’, president trump’s future white house

We do not welcome Donald Trump to the White House and will revile and oppose him until he can conclusively demonstrate that the hideous pronouncements and proposals of his campaign have demonstrably been set aside and in favor of positions and actions that genuinely seek to serve our national cause and purpose to build a better America rooted in the principles of justice, equity, and human dignity.” Architect-urbanist Michael Sorkin, Architecture Against Trump, published on Nov. 12, 2016

More specifically, as an advocate of quality early childhood education for all children, I find Trump‘s cynical and dangerous appointments an anathema. His choice of billionaire Betty De Vos to head the Department of Education is a clear attack on public education in favor of privatization and profit. John Dewey would be dismayed.

Unfinished – Non Finito


Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento,
duquesa de Huescar (1740-1794)
Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1799)

“The exhibition examines the term “unfinished” across the visual arts in the broadest possible way; it includes works left incomplete by their makers, a result that often provides insight into the artists’ creative process, as well as works that engage a non finito—intentionally unfinished—aesthetic that embraces the unresolved and open-ended. Featured artists who explored such an aesthetic include some of history’s greatest practitioners, among them Titian, Rembrandt, Turner, and Cézanne, as well as modern and contemporary artists, including Janine Antoni, Lygia Clark, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg, who have taken the unfinished in entirely new directions, alternately blurring the distinction between making and un-making, extending the boundaries of art into both space and time, and recruiting viewers to complete the objects they had begun.” –  “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible”  MET Breuer Exhibit – 3/18-9/16

I found a curious connection with this exhibit and the ideas behind the blocks that I design. A set of blocks present a palette of possibilities. Intentionally unfinished, no final form is given. With many of the works in the exhibit, the viewer is left with an open-ended question. What would or could happen next? The viewer, like the block builder, is left to imagine or construct anything.  Unlike the works in the exhibit, a block builder’s ephemeral constructions are only visible when documented through photographs or video. However, some “thoughts made visible” that occur during the building process might be…

I am starting but I am not finished yet.
Maybe I’ll add more,
or take some away,
or just stare at it and wait awhile.
or I just need a break,
or I don’t want to be responsible,
or I am  avoiding criticism.
Maybe I’ll knock it down. It’s not like a puzzle, or a deadline, or someone looking over my shoulder
Maybe I want you to finish it
Maybe I don’t want it to end

Why stack rocks?


Artist: Ugo Rondinone, “Seven Magic Mountain”, in the desert south of Las Vegas, Nevada, 30 to 35 feet high, 2016


In the last few years there has been a spate of articles noting the “plague of rock stacks” in the wilderness. Some conservationists have even asked hikers to stop building rock piles for ecological reasons (exposing the soil, disturbing insect and animal habitats) while some “stone balancers,”  such as Peter Juhl, are  concerned with the problem of  littering natural areas with stone stacking structure and instead advocate a “leave-non-trace approach in creating our temporary art.”

I have always been intrigued by the simple act of stacking. Why do young toddlers and artists and trail hikers and the builders of cairns and inukshuks have this desire in common?  Why do some of these builders consider their structures as permanent markers while others see them as structures to be knocked down and possibly re built again?  Why do some “builders” take pleasure in the design of stacked forms while others feel the need to represent something?

Stacking similar or unrelated forms implies designing with “loose parts” Early childhood educators have recently been reexamining and extoling the use of “loose parts”. Books, articles and numerous blogs show examples of children stacking, lining up and making complex constructions with multiples of material from the natural world and discards from industry.  The theory of “loose parts”, developed by Simon Nicholson in the late 1960’s, has become part of the early childhood education lexicon. Nicolson focused on the democratization of creativity, proposing that building and designing should not be left to the “elite” or the “gifted” but is a process that should be available to everybody.

Drones and Building Blocks: A Peaceful Relationship














Drones will never take the place of the hands of toddlers who delight in constructing tall towers with blocks. However, on a larger scale, it is curious to see the work of the Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler who are working on future plans to use drones in the construction of skyscrapers. Check out the video:

Image from article by Stan Alcorn  at Co.Exist

Futuristic Structures

The engineering firm, ARUP has come up with a mock-up design for a building of the future -2050. Perhaps we need some new modular construction toys or recycled elements to inspire our youngest architects to play with these ideas. I can imagine that if some of these images were projected in the block area of a preschool classroom, a group of five year olds might add something to ARUP’s preliminary designs.

“Most futuristic of all, the structure is completely modular, and designed to be shifted about (using robots, of course). The building has three layer types, with different life-spans: a permanent layer at the bottom,
a 10- to 20-year layer (which includes the “facade and primary fit-out walls, finishes, or on-floor mechanical plant.” And a third layer that can incorporate rapid changes, such as new IT equipment.”


Winter Blues…and Red and Orange

Winter Blues…and red and orange and yellow and green and purple…and white and shadows

Just in case the dark, cold and snowy winter days are getting you down, these two constructive and aesthetically pleasing winter design projects by engineering student Daniel Gray and artist Simon Beck might inspire some creative activity in the snowy outdoors. (Speaking from Vermont where we just received over two feet of snow.)

Daniel Gray used milk cartons as molds to make colored ice blocks to construct a rainbow igloo. The blocks were stuck together with “snowcrete” – a mixture of snow and water.


Simon Beck used snow as a medium to carve intricate designs in a massive snowy field.


Temporary Carpets

Here are some more tantalizing images of what happens when ordinary objects are assembled into formal, geometric compositions by artists and designer. These “temporary” carpets are reminiscent of the structures that young children create with blocks. Although children’s initial intention and their access to such a large quantity of units may certainly differ from this Dutch design collective, the impulse to create order and beauty from the ordinary is similar as well as the fragility and temporal nature of the final product.

Sponge Carpet

Thorn Carpet

Bottle Carpet

MoMA Workshop -Blocks Tell A Story

My Final Workshop at MoMA – Wednesday, November 14th
Free and open to the public
25 people limit

Blocks Tell a Story: Creating Narratives in Space and Time
Led by toy designer and educator Karen Hewitt of Burlington, Vermont–based Learning Materials Workshop, these two workshops and drop-in activities invite visitors to channel their inner sense of creative play to design their own stories and reinvent their urban landscapes with building

Workshops begin with a brief visual tour of the history of building blocks
as a learning tool from the 1850s to the present—from Friedrich Froebel to
computer Smart Blocks. Participants then create narratives using only
blocks. Without the aid of figurative miniature objects, the blocks can
become symbols for objects, people, and animals. Participants’ narratives
will be documented and shared.

Beauty and Poetry in the Everyday

These Sakir Gökçebag  images should be of interest to teachers of young children as well as artists.“Removing everyday objects from their customary context” and seeing the beauty and poetry in these images is part of young children’s everyday experience.


Dr. Marcus Graf

On the Beauty of the Normal and the Poetry of the Everyday Some thoughts on the works of Sakir Gökçebag

In his work, Sakir Gökçebag deconstructs the various dimensions of our everyday life to reveal its complexity and the multiple facets of reality this yields. The artist, who was born in 1965 in Turkey and currently resides in Hamburg, studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Istanbul. After completing his dissertation, he attended the Düsseldorf Art Academy on a DAAD grant, where he was awarded the Markus Lüpertz Prize. From the very beginning, the organization of three-dimensional objects in a given space played a decisive role in his work, which originally was focused upon graphic arts and painting. Today, his work is primarily determined by ready-made style object-based and spatial installations, in which he removes everyday objects from their customary contexts, charging them with new, often absurd levels of meaning through serial reproduction, deformation, and deconstruction. “

Child in the City of Play

I left New York City on the last Megabus out before Hurricane Sandy hit the city. I have been in touch with many friends in the city who have been coping in various creative ways. Although most of the power is back on in Manhattan so many people are still suffering – their homes destroyed and the cold weather setting in. I am especially thinking of the young children and their families during this most difficult time.

For those that were not able to attend the symposium “The Child in the City of Play,” you can see it on line. The symposium was held in conjunction with the MoMA exhibit “Century of the Child” and “Common Senses. During the hour break time, the lively crowd interacted with the exhibits in “Common Senses,” including my own block installation and Reggio Children’s Digital Landscapes. “Common Senses” closes on November 19th so you still have an opportunity to see it if you are in New York. MoMA is open but subway transportation is somewhat limited. Things are improving slowly but this was a devastating storm


Interact with – Common Senses at MoMA

I just returned from an exciting week in NYC setting up my part of the exhibit “Common Senses” at The Museum of Modern Art.


The exhibit  is held in conjunction with the “Century of the Child” exhibit in the Architecture and Design Department.  “Common Senses” is designed for audience participation and since it is interactive, it will change everyday. The moment I finished installing my section, I realized that it was just the beginning, not the end. I will be returning to MoMA next week to give a workshop on Wednesday afternoon, October 3rd.  The installation process took several days and I was fortunate to spend some time with Ilaria Cavallini and Simona Spiaggiari from Reggio Emilia as they were setting up their amazing Digital Landscape Atelier.

If you can get to NYC to see these two exhibits you won’t be disappointed. Leave yourself several hours to absorb the “Century of the Child” exhibit and to interact with “Common Senses


Beach Art That Washes Away

If you think that structures created with blocks are ephemeral and transcient, take a look at “A Sign in Space, an art installation by Gunilla Klingberg at Spain ’s Laga Beach .   ” It’s a “truck tire star pattern” that’s diligently embossed into the sand at low tide, only to be washed away at high tide. The beach becomes a giant groomed sculpture, only to turn back into unformed sand.”

Tree Houses and Summertime

Growing up in the middle of Manhattan, my wilderness adventures consisted of climbing trees in Riverside Park. I had always wanted to build a tree house and I continue to be fascinated about creating a small living space above the high branches. The design of the Senior-Center-turned tree house speaks to this nostalgia. However, rather than just gazing at the tree house from the Senior Center housing, I think that providing some kind of access to the structure, such as a ramp or a lift, would provide a richer experience than simply gazing up and remembering the past.  A number of architects are designing tree houses for adults – some are even hotels that compete with bird nests.

Senior Center Turned Treehouse by Benjamin Verdonck

'vogelenzangpark 17bis' by Benjamin Verdonck, 2012

The Bird's Nest by Inredningsgruppen

the 'Mirrorcube' by Tham & Videgard Architects - One of the Rooms in Treehotel


Anemone Installation

The “Anemone” installation is part of a genre of visual works of art that invite audience participation. Some other examples created over the past seventy years bridging the world of art and play can be seen on the website . The “Anemone,” reminded me of the tubing used in the constructions made by children with Curvilinear. The flexible transparent and colored tubes in this set provide an open-ended material for children to create a variety of forms – certainly less formal, and perhaps, less intentional than “Anemone.” Blocks and construction toys, consisting of loose parts, invite interaction. They are meant to be touched, turned, and transformed into a myriad of constructions that also appeal on an aesthetic level.


“Anemone is an art installation aimed at waving together aesthetic experience and tactile engagement- a combination generally considered off limits within the world of contemporary art. All too often, art installations are considered precious, almost sacred objects; while they are meant to be appreciated for their aesthetic beauty, they offer little in terms of human interaction. In other words, they are meant to be seen, not felt. Recognizing that human engagement is one of the key factors in creating a rich experience, Anemone has been designed with the idea of interaction as one of its key design objectives.” Anemone Installation / Oyler Wu Collaborative :Lidija Grozdanic | February – 21 – 2012


Curvilinear by Karen Hewitt

Construction, Literacy and Stuart Little

Stuart Little First Edition Published 1945

Stuart Little First Edition Chewed by Mouse

To follow up on my last blog on building blocks, construction and literacy, here is an image of my most favorite, well-worn first edition of Stuart Little that I recently found stuffed in a box in my cabin in East Corinth, Vermont. A country cousin of Stuart had methodically chewed several edges of the books to use as construction material for a nest. I am not sure how Stuart Little, or for that matter, EB White, the author or Garth Williams, the illustrator, would feel about this activity but it is an example of purposeful recycling from the country mouse’s point of view.

Construction and Literacy

Carved Book Landscapes by Guy Laramee

Carved Book Landscapes by Guy Laramee

Milar Lagos Book Igloo

Milar Lagos Book Igloo

I realize that this is a bit of a stretch but I immediately thought about the connection between young children’s block play (construction) and the development of literacy. The impulse to take modular forms and stack them or make patterns is common among young children as well as many adult artists. Parallel with this form-making impulse is the desire to construct narratives with these forms.  There is a bit of both in the works of Milar Lagos and Guy Laramee. Following up on this theme, I will be adding an image in my next blog that I will entitle “Revenge of the Mouse.” I recently discovered my precious first edition copy of Stuart Little by E.B. White tenderly chewed on the lower-right hand corner by a resident mouse in my house in East Corinth, Vermont. Perhaps it was Stuart’s illiterate but artistic country cousin.

Rube Goldberg-Like Inventions

These Rube Goldberg-like inventions, although more complex, remind me of some of the machine constructions by young children that work with cause and effect. The “story” behind the children’s “machines” are often very detailed and carefully developed and, like Rube’s machines, often make something very complicated that could be done in a more direct way. It is this “complication” that speaks to creativity and humor. If you have shown these video clips to young children, it would be interesting to share the children’s responses and to see if they inspire new ideas for “machines” that make easy tasks, more difficult.

Melvin the Mini Machine from HEYHEYHEY on Vimeo.

Using Blocks for Corporate Problem Solving

Using Legos for 3-D graphing

Companies like GM are using Legos to visualize production problems.

“We discussed … our frustrations with some of our reports not showing us what we really needed to see,” Dennis Pastor writes Co.Design.  We came to the conclusion that our processes were 3-dimensional but our reports were only 2-dimensional. We needed to see them 3-D; hand sketches were exchanged over the weekend and within the following week, GM had the first LEGO prototype in use. But beyond their transparency, there may be a bigger advantage to Legos: they’re also fun. By mapping real world problems to an icon of our youth, each challenge must be approached with an inherent playfulness. And because Legos are, by their very nature, expected to be rebuilt, patterns don’t appear stuck in stone–or just as bad–printed in ink. Now, if only we could get the Lego pirate ship or a lunar rover in the mix, we’d really have something.”

This is the second article that talks about the use of Legos as a tool/toy for adults to represent ideas in a three-dimensional form and, to have “fun” in the process. We know that children use all blocks in the same way – to visualize, test and retest ideas since the flexibility of blocks allows them to knock them down and rebuild again. It is curious that Pastor wants to add the Lego pirate ship or the lunar rover which seems to be the opposite idea of the non-representational, open-ended, and therefore, flexible nature of the Lego brick and, of blocks in general.

Blocks, Imaginary Characters and Lego

When children make up narratives during their block play without the
availability of toy people or animals, they will create their characters
using blocks and construction parts. It is interesting to see what colors
and shapes they feel correspond to the features of their imaginary

In a similar imaginative act, these Lego design ads use non-representational
forms to create a character. They have taken one or two salient features of
these cartoon characters and through a choice of a specific color or size
relationship, they have represented them with Lego bricks.

Minimalist Lego cartoon figures

Ad Campaign for Lego by German Advertising Agency Jung von Matt

“It’s a series of minimalist Lego designs based upon some of our most
beloved cartoon characters. From Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to The
Smurfs, to The Simpsons, to the kids from South Park…
Through the simplest of visual cues, the ads find the perfect balance of
implying so the viewer can infer.”


Groundscraper- Architecture Underground

What is the opposite of a skyscraper? Check out this “groundscraper”, a luxury hotel planned for construction in an abandoned quarry in Shanghai.

This rendering of this proposed five star underground hotel could provoke some curious ideas for building an underground structure in the sandbox or on the edge of a puddle or pond.

Noisy Jelly Shapes

jelly blocksThis noisy chemistry lab is a a curious melding of building, sound color and shape. Observe these children constructing in a new medium. They are even stacking these jelly blocks.

Happy Birthday Mies van der Rohe

As a designer of building toys for budding architects, I want to join Google in wishing Mies van der Rohe a special Happy Birthday – 1886- 1969.

His often quoted remarks have always resonated in my design and education work.

“Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together. There it begins.”
Speaking about restraint in design, the New York Herald Tribune, 28 Jun 1959.

“Less is more.”
Speaking about restraint in design, the New York Herald Tribune, 28 Jun 1959.

Girls, Blocks and Architects

Women in architecture

Women in Architecture Info-graphic

girl building with blocks
We often hear about the block building “gender gap” both at homes and in schools. Perhaps these images will further inspire young girls to build with blocks and join the next generation of female architects. In 2011, women made up 21% of US architects.

 Jeanne Gang Architect, 2011 MacArthur Fellow

Jeanne Gang Architect, 2011 MacArthur Fellow

Ice Hotel

I discovered these images of an “Ice Hotel” built of snow and ice in a village in Swedish Lapland that reminded me of my collection of small clear, acrylic, half domes and rectangular prisms blocks. Not only can I create free form sculptures and twenty-first century skyscrapers with the blocks, but I can add an ”ice hotel” to some of the playful constructions. Although the scale and the temperature of the forms in the ice hotel are larger and considerably colder to the touch, the beauty of transparent forms and the shadows are similar.

ice hotel

Passion for Skyscrapers

The passion for building skyscrapers begins when a one years old carefully stacks four blocks on top of each other to make a tower.  Although the rationale, the engineering problems, the materials, and the social and aesthetic issues become infinitely more complex, the desire to build high seems part of our DNA.  Here are some examples the winners of eVolo’s 2012 Skyscraper Competition. These images might inspire some pre-school block builders to expand their construction ideas.

“The first place was awarded to Zhi Zheng, Hongchuan Zhao and Dongbai Song from China for their project “Himalaya Water Tower”. The proposal is a skyscraper located high in the Himalayan mountain range that stores water and helps regulate its dispersal to the land below as the mountains’ natural supplies dry up. The skyscraper, which can be replicated en masse, will collect water in the rainy season, purify it, freeze it into ice and store it for future use.

“The “Himalaya Water Tower” is a skyscraper located high in the mountain range that serves to store water and helps regulate its dispersal to the land below as the mountains’ natural supplies dry up. The skyscraper, which can be replicated en masse, will collect water in the rainy season, purify it, freeze it into ice and store it for future use. The water distribution schedule will evolve with the needs of residents below; while it can be used to help in times of current drought, it’s also meant to store plentiful water for future generations.”

The second place was awarded to Yiting Shen, Nanjue Wang, Ji Xia, and Zihan Wang from China for their project “Mountain Band-Aid”, a design that seeks to simultaneously return the displaced Hmong mountain people to their homes and work as it restores the ecology of the Yunnan mountain range.

Mountain band Aid

The skyscraper is constructed in the traditional Chinese Southern building style known as Chuan Dou. Small residential blocks are used as the framework: The blocks are freely organized as they were in the original village, but the framework controls this organization of blocks into different floors, acting as the contour line in traditional Hmong village.

The recipient of the third place is Lin Yu-Ta from the Taiwan for a “Vertical Landfill” to be located in the largest cities around the globe, both as a reminder of the outrageous amount of garbage that we produce and as a power plant that harvests energy from waste decomposition.”Vertical LandfillVertical Landfill 2