May 2, 2014 11:42 am

The dilemmas faced by parents when choosing children’s furniture

Are miniature versions of classic designs the best option and how important is adaptability?

In an age of the $25,000 kids’ size Ferrari and £1,440 boy’s Gucci leather jacket, it is perhaps no surprise that furniture companies are reappropriating some of their classic designs for children.

US design company Knoll has experimented with children’s versions of classic designs since 2004, producing miniature versions of a number of its well-known furniture pieces such as the Jens Risom side chair.

Knoll’s sales copy for this design classic underlines the niche market it is targeting: “Brightly coloured webbing and simple design make these scaled-down versions ideal for a kids’ craft station or mini-modernist tea party.”

“It’s a high-end market,” says Liz Needle of KnollStudio in Philadelphia. “When you look around at kids’ furniture, it’s awful. You can have a clean modern aesthetic in your home but you don’t want ugly kids’ furniture. Parents want to continue the style in the rest of the home.”

Although the reproduction of the iconic Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair (priced $4,474) has seen modest sales, says Needle, the Jens Risom web chair and table have done better. “We took the table design and made it the right length, then put wood laminate on the top so it was more durable. It’s not just for residential, people also use it for children’s wings of hospitals or for classrooms.”

I definitely prefer children’s furniture that is designed for young people rather than mini versions of design classics

- Sir Terence Conran

The Saarinen womb chair was also reproduced in two sizes, the medium for older children at 75 per cent of the original size and the smaller one for children aged four to eight (priced from $2,898).

Ross Lovegrove’s Sprite chair also comes in two different sizes. The range is simple with bright colours and five different finishes. The mini Bertoia diamond chair is also popular, says Needle. This is often paired with Marcel Breuer’s low Laccio table.

Sir Terence Conran, the British designer and retailer, is less persuaded of the merits of such miniature versions. “I definitely prefer children’s furniture that is designed for young people rather than mini versions of design classics – the Eames Elephant chair is a classic example of this,” he says. “They have used their classic design principles and created something children genuinely love.”

The Conran Shop’s thriving children’s furniture range includes Dutch designer Anne-Claire Petit’s colourful handcrafted stools (£350 each and available in two sizes) and the Lou Lou Ghost Chair by Philippe Starck – the French designer’s ironic take on the classic Louis XVI armchair.

Also capitalising on the appetite for high quality children’s design is Sharon Elalouf, of Ash Design. She had worked as an interior designer in Paris and Miami but was struck by how limited the choice was for children’s furniture when she moved to London.

This led her and her business partner, Amanda Ibgui, to expand their company into a bespoke children’s interior design service: Little Ash Design. The two designers consult with the child or their parents on, for example, the child’s hobbies, what their interests are, what stories or television shows they like, and then the designers set to work.

“We try to find a very special piece of furniture, like a chair from one of the big Italian brands: the Cassina chair; a piece from Poltrona Frau or Kastel or Starck, and then we put on leather cushions. You can play with a lot of colours and give the room an accent,” says Elalouf. “We have a very high-end market – we target more made-to-measure, special items.”

Where they might deploy a motif and bright colours for younger children, such as the Volière lamp by the French designer Chalière, they might go to The Rug company for a rug by Alexander McQueen for an adolescent’s room.

“In a playroom we think of items that are easy to manage for kids; a lot on wheels such as American-style baskets. We are also keen on small monograms and writing,” says Elalouf.

Richard Woolfson, a child psychologist, says the type of style that would appeal to a child aged between four and seven diverges greatly from that of a teenager. This can raise problems when trying to design a room that can be adapted as the child grows up. Children under seven, he says, “look for bright interiors or cartoon figures; some type of childish motif or familiar pattern”.

“Then they look for comfort,” adds Woolfson. “The child will like a [high-end] chair visually – but it has to be comfortable and it has to fit them. They also like to be able to move furniture around.”

The Saya Mini chair, the child’s version of the iconic adult design, by Lievore Altherr Molina (LAM), fits into this category.

“Saya Mini was conceived with the aim of extending the notion of ‘comfort’ to children’s chairs,” says Claudio Feltrin, chief executive of Italian design company Arper, which collaborates with LAM. “Its playful silhouette makes it particularly suited to cheerful colour finishes, which children find attractive.”

Yes [my products] are colourful and cheerful, but they also look good in the living room or anywhere else in the house

- Anne-Claire Petit

Children aged seven to 13, says Woolfson, will look for furniture that emulates adult life, whereas teenagers’ tastes will adapt to whatever the zeitgeist is.

For example, Little Ash Design themed one of its rooms on the hit US TV series Gossip Girl, while another room was rock music-themed, called “Rock my World” – a fit-out which cost more than $20,000 and featured a pair of Eames chairs.

“I think the key point to consider when designing a children’s room is to keep the space adaptable and versatile,” says Conran. “Within the space of a dozen years, children grow, change and develop rapidly so when you plan the room you should be prepared for at least three very distinctive phases ... Less time, effort and money are wasted if you invest in furniture and fittings that are adaptable.”

Anne-Claire Petit says one factor that positively influences demand for her work is the fact that her designs are not only for children. This is partly because play areas are more integrated into the house nowadays, rather than confined to designated rooms.

“Yes [my products] are colourful and cheerful, but they also look good in the living room or anywhere else in the house ... Parents are happy to pay a little extra for items that add a nice touch to their interior,” she says.

Opinion is divided as to how important it is to create a good aesthetic in a child’s room. According to Woolfson, the key components that a parent should consider are visual appeal, comfort and functionality. Should one also add good design to this formula?

Arguably yes, says Conran. “I think good design is a fantastic thing to surround them with at an early age,” he says. “Is it essential? Probably not, but there is no doubt that many of our first impressions of colour, texture and pattern are formed here, so of course design plays a key role.”

Serena Tarling is a commissioning editor on House and Home

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