When our founder Christiane came into the office raving about Karen Hewitt's educational toys from the Learning Materials Workshop, we knew she had discovered something special. We've always been passionate about inspiring little ones through design, and we're very excited to share our passion by carrying a selection of Karen's innovative designs. To find out more about this creative designer and founder behind the Vermont-based Learning Materials Workshop, we went straight to the source. Meet Karen...
(Karen in her Vermont-based studio.)
How did you become a toy designer?
The idea to design toys came rather suddenly although now it seems like quite a logical development. I majored in studio art at Oberlin College and received a Masters Degree in Early Childhood at Bank Street College of Education, so my passion for art/design and my interest in child development and the importance of children’s play was a perfect fit. The aha moment occurred soon after graduate school when I was teaching pre-kindergarten in the NYC public schools. I stumbled across an exhibition catalog “Play Orbit” from the ICA gallery in London and I thought—that’s it—I can combine my passion for art and play by designing toys.
Where do you find inspiration for your designs?
My inspiration comes from many sources but observing children at play would have to be the primary one. I have spent untold hours watching children of all ages play with both with natural materials and with toys. I have a good sense of what sustains a child's interest and imagination. I also continue to spend time in art museums and galleries looking at both historical and contemporary art, architecture and design objects. In order to design toys, you need to understand the history. I have curated several exhibitions on the history of “education toys” and more specifically on the history of building toys. This involved spending time researching and examining toys from many different time periods that I am sure has influenced my designs. I am always on the look out for interesting materials that may inspire new designs. However, I am very conscious of the limits and challenges posed by issues of safety.
Do you have any favorites from your line?
I do not really have a favorite toy. I like what children create with my designs as much as the designs themselves. I enjoy working with limits. The Arcobaleno has a limited number of pieces with unusual beveled edge shape that stimulate creative thinking.
I love working with color. Coloratura plays with a variety of colors but is based on color theory, and that continues to interest me. My favorite toys are the ones that I see children drawn to and that provoke them to create amazing structures—that always surprise me.
What are your hobbies?
I love to cook and to dig in the dirt, and I have a large garden in Vermont which I enjoy all summer but also put enough away in the freezer to enjoy during the long Vermont winters. I have a passion for the Italian language and literature and I been studying it, on and off for a number of years. It is also helpful since I am the US distributor for the books from Reggio Children in Reggio Emilia, Italy and travel to Italy at least once a year. My favorite city haunts are art museums, galleries and book stores.
How do the toys a child plays with influence the way they think?
Everything children play with or encounters have some influence on the way they think. In the exhibit, “Educational Toys in America:1800 to the Present” we came to the conclusion that everything – every toy was “educational” in the sense that a child took something from the experience. What they took and what value it had is another question. If one thinks (as I do) that it is vital for children to be able to use their imagination and to think creatively, then toys that are open-ended – toys with loose parts and no scripts – are the kinds of toys that children should have.
(L: Karen surrounded by her first collection of Learning Materials. R: Leading a workshop at the Whitney.)
Tell us about your involvement with MoMA’s “Century of the Child” exhibit?
I was asked by the Department of Education at MoMA to participate in an interactive studio space to be held in conjunction with “The Century of the Child” exhibit. This will involve designing an interactive installation using my toys with the emphasis on creative play as well as leading two, participatory workshops. The MoMA Studio will open on September 24.