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The Kids Are Alright — 3/18/14

Posted by Silvia Barisione, filed under Wolfsonian Collection

The famous, streamlined Radio Nurse was the world’s first baby monitor. Like its many descendants, it was created to hear if the child—alone in her room—was complaining.

The monitor’s origins were apparently a response by Zenith’s president, Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., to the notorious kidnapping of the two-year-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1932. McDonald commissioned the device because he wanted a way to keep track of his young daughter when she was alone in her room. Zenith Radio Corporation created a two-part set consisting of a  transmitter, the so-called Guardian Ear, to be placed near the child, and a speaker, the Radio Nurse receiver, to be located near the caretakers.

The Japanese-American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, still at the beginning of his career, designed the Radio Nurse. He humanized the electric device by transposing the biomorphic shapes characteristic of his sculpture into the appliance, which was made from Bakelite. Incorporating organic and geometric forms, with the Radio Nurse Noguchi evoked the ovoid heads of Constantin Brancusi. Noguchi worked in Brancusi’s studio in Paris from 1927 to 1929, and was deeply influenced by him.

While the Radio Nurse was not a commercial success, it is now recognized as a triumph of good design. In 1939 the monitor was displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art's annual sculpture exhibition. Combining mechanical and human shapes, Noguchi succeeded in creating an excellent product of industrial design in Bakelite, which remains one of the most striking icons of American streamlining.

Silvia Barisione is a curator at The Wolfsonian.

Caption: Short-wave radio transmitter, Radio Nurse, 1937. Isamu Noguchi, designer. Zenith Radio Corporation, Chicago, manufacturer. Bakelite, metal, rubber. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection.