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What are Mobiles?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 23, 2024
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Mobiles are dangling sculptures that hang as decoration, art, or an educational tool. Most people are familiar with those that hang above cribs, play music, rotate, and give an infant something to focus on. These sculptures can also be projects for school-aged children that allows them to represent a family outing, favorite book, or science concept. Alexander Calder elevated the mobile form to high art with his oversized sculptures designed for outside spaces or solariums.

In general, mobiles are groups of suspended, three-dimensional items that have several smaller objects, such as seashells or stuffed animals, hanging from crossbars. A prototypical one would have a main string to which several horizontal supports are tied. Then a series of objects are tied to these braces, usually at different heights. Beyond that simple definition, the decoration may be tiny, heavy, delicate, playful, translucent, musical, or informative.

The most common kind are introduced in the home during a baby shower. This device is designed to hang over a baby's crib, bassinet, rocker, or even car seat. With batteries, these plastic devices rotate and play lullabies or nursery rhymes. They are meant to soothe fussy babies and entertain their developing brain as they begin to be able to visually focus, understand color, and hear melodies. As a baby falls asleep, he or she is quieted by the music, but if the infant wakes up unexpectedly, he or she will have something interesting to stare at, such as blocks, animals, or simple shapes in primary colors.

Children may design other mobiles as part of a challenging, artistic project. A child who has been studying ancient Egypt could create one that incorporates a mummy, pyramid, scarab beetle, and a scroll of papyrus. If he needed to illustrate the various stages of metamorphosis for a butterfly, he could cut out drawings of a larvae, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly. Thematically, people typically assume the different objects included in the sculpture have something in common as they turn and flutter in the breeze.

Alexander Calder is well known for his abstract, graceful, swinging mobiles. Most of his are large enough to take up a room or an entire museum's lobby. Their sweeping arcs connect organic, amoeba-like shapes, usually in bright or simple colors like red, white, blue, yellow, and black. They tend to slowly rotate or counter-balance themselves so they're in constant motion, even away from wind. Calder was inspired by kinetic sculptures with expert mechanics and engineering. Some people describe them as planets in orbit, autumn leaves about to fall off a tree, or electrons spinning around a nucleus.

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Discussion Comments
By seag47 — On Sep 22, 2012

@cloudel – That sounds beautiful! I would have rather put a mobile like that above my baby's crib than the one my husband insisted upon.

He wanted her to take an interest in science one day, particularly in astronomy. He believed that influencing her at a very early age might point her in the right direction, so he designed a solar system crib mobile.

He at least made it sparkly and brightly colored, so she did respond to it. I think it's a bit extreme to believe that this will make her grow up to have an interest in astronomy, though.

By cloudel — On Sep 22, 2012

I found a beautiful cheap mobile on sale at a discount warehouse. It was made entirely of purple and silver butterflies.

They had been positioned in a sphere, so they seemed to be flying all around each other. They hung from a clear string, so it really did look like a clump of butterflies.

My daughter loves this mobile. I think I would have loved it at that age, too!

By kylee07drg — On Sep 21, 2012

I have a solar light mobile hanging from my front porch. The strings have dragonfly shapes hanging at different lengths, and each one has an LED light inside that gets charged by the solar panel and the sun.

When night falls, the dragonflies begin to glow. The fact that they are suspended in midair makes them look more realistic.

By OeKc05 — On Sep 21, 2012

In my college three-dimensional art class, we had to design and build mobiles. It was a challenging project, but it resulted in some of the best artwork I have ever done.

I worked many hours fashioning wires and sculpting pieces to go on the mobile, and a lot of it was trial and error. If one piece was too heavy and caused the mobile to go off-balance, it was back to the drawing board for me!

I think the fact that the mobile took so long to get right made it really special to me. I will keep it forever, and I will pass it down to my kids someday.

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