"Play is a serious matter. Let's help them (our children) to grow up free from stereotypes. Let's help them develop all their senses…"
– Bruno Munari, Italian artist, designer and inventor (1907 – 1998)
Throughout my pregnancy, I often came across research and studies promoting the use of the creative arts as facilitators/enhancers of physical and emotional well-being, particularly in the case of expecting mothers (1). And yet, at the time, I did not dwell on the potential of this idea for a second. As I navigated through each trimester, I found myself trying to manage a range of conflicting emotions and decided to hone it all in on the practical - what items to buy in preparation for the new arrival, the technicalities of the birth itself and how to organise a well-functioning support system around me and my partner. As the months went by and I began experiencing the physical and mental exhaustion of the third trimester, I realised that starting to work around my anxieties was essential.
As I began my search for methods to unwind and regain my inner balance, I instinctively leaned towards the idea of 'making'. This would create an opportunity for me to keep my hands working rhythmically, which would give my mind the space to flow around the challenges I was facing. But, above all, as a visual thinker, I was always excited at the thought of introducing my daughter to the world of shapes and colour early on. And so I began looking for a framework or ideology that would help me, first and foremost, achieve a better understanding of her perception of the surrounding world.
Baby mobiles were my first stop and a wonderful way to begin crafting with a sense of purpose. Then, as I dug deeper, I came across Bruno Munari's philosophy of play and experimental methods to encourage children to explore their environments (2). His theories quickly became my first ABC into the world of shape, colour, touch, texture, and tactility as I began exploring each of these from a perspective different from what my architectural education had exposed me to. Without realising, I was laying the basis for a new level of connection my daughter and I would ease into day by day, a vocabulary that belonged only to us and spanned beyond the realm of words.
In his prolific, 70-year career, Bruno Munari became known for various contributions to art, industrial design, film, architecture, art theory, and technology. He was a firm believer in preserving children's mental elasticity and the importance of ludic experimentation and playfulness in artistic research (3). According to Munari, children possess a natural interest in exploration and investigation, making and building, communication and social interaction, artistic expression and self-realisation. Therefore, central to his studies was exploring the fundamentals of functionality and uselessness while encouraging children's creativity and complex thinking through ludic experimentation.
Munari is best known for his floating abstract art, or the ‘Useless Machines’. Inspired by childhood memories of hanging swings and the strips of paper he used to cut out (4), throw into the air and watch float out his bedroom window. In the early 1930s, he created delicate, abstract sculptures suspended from the ceiling that brought together a variety of materials such as sticks of balsa wood, cardboard leaves painted on both sides, blown glass and spring steel wires. As a direct result of their light weight, the compositions moved freely through space without any constraints amongst themselves, leaving the spectator with the perception of an unstable, 'living' art form, inhabiting the same environment as them (5). He decided to call them 'Useless Machines' because they do not have an apparent utilitarian function, yet they are not entirely useless.
The Munari Mobile is derived from this work. A black and white hanging arrangement made from 2-dimensional geometrical shapes, balanced off a glass ball that reflects the light. The elements of the mobile are so light that even the slightest breeze can make them sway gently. As a result, this random, slow movement allows newborns to track the objects with their eyes and develop their vision, making the experience challenging but not overwhelming. Munari wrote about this particular mobile in the preface of his book, Design as Art (6) and it was used as a way to illustrate some of the basic mathematical principles behind his kinetic art.
For me, this was already a great place to start.
The Munari mobile is easy to make and can be used from shortly after birth until between 7 and 8 weeks. Instructional materials and downloadable templates are widely available on the internet. It is generally hung in the movement or play area, about 30 cm from a child's face, isolating a baby's learning to just one sense so they can deeply focus.
To me, there is certainly nothing useless about this mobile's simplicity and beauty, which, in our case, would become the first in a series of many to follow. Engaging in the process of crafting each of them allowed my stream of consciousness to flow more naturally and relax. Above all, I connected with myself and my environment, and explored the world anew, at my daughter's side.
(1) Demecs IP, Fenwick J, Gamble J. Women's experiences of attending a creative arts program during their pregnancy. Women Birth. 2011 Sep;24(3):112-21. doi: 10.1016/j.wombi.2010.08.004. Epub 2010 Sep 24. PMID: 20869936.
(2) Campagnaro, M. (2016). The Function of Play in Bruno Munari's Children's Books. A Historical Overview. Ricerche Di Pedagogia E Didattica. Journal of Theories and Research in Education, 11(3), 93-105. https://doi.org/10.6092/issn.1970-2221/6449
(3) Campagnaro, Marnie. (2016). The Function of Play in Bruno Munari's Children's Books. A Historical Overview.
(4) Keam, S., 2021. Bruno Munari: Futurism, Function & Useless Machines. [online] Culture Trip. Available at: <https://theculturetrip.com/europe/italy/articles/bruno-munari-futurism-function-and-useless-machines/> [Accessed 29 April 2021].
(5) Arshake. 2021. Bruno Munari and the «Useless Machines». Part I.. [online] Available at: <https://www.arshake.com/en/bruno-munari-and-the-useless-machines-part-i/> [Accessed 29 April 2
(6) Tanchis, A., & Munari, B. (1987). Bruno Munari: design as art. Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press.