As every budding author has been told at least once, the surefire route to success – in theory anyway – involves writing what you know. The same could also be said of design, especially if the designer is a parent.
Take Mikael Mourgue and Salomé Strappazzon of the Montreal studio Toytoy. After their twin daughters were born, the couple saw a niche in the cheap, multifunctional children's-furniture market and set about creating a line that embodied those qualities but was stylish and eco-friendly, too.
The result is a well-received new collection of recycled, flat-packed seats, tables and bookcases made of pre-cut cardboard sheets that can be assembled without a drop of glue. Each item in the line can be "carried, dragged, opened up, discovered, assembled and dismantled," says Mourgue of the brightly coloured pieces, which he also promises are waterproof. Clearly, he and Strappazzon have hands-on playroom experience.
They're not alone. Ralph and Michelle Montemurro of Monte Design, a nursery-furniture manufacturer and retailer in Toronto, established their business after their third child was born. Toronto artist and educator Jen Bulthuis of the design studio Fidoodle had been exploring the relationship between toys and "touchable art," as she calls it, before the birth of her kids, but didn't see it as a business opportunity until after they arrived. And Christian Imler and Suzanne O'Leary, owners of the Ella + Elliot stores in Toronto and Vancouver, set up shop after seeking out toys and baby gear while expecting their first child – and finding much of what was available in Canada wanting.
The apparent lesson here: If you want kids' products that are attractive, durable, innovative and safe, design or market them yourself.
"Well-designed kids' products often leave some detail to the imagination," Bulthuis, whose DIY Creature Kits consist of wood and cardboard figures that children assemble and decorate themselves, argues from experience. "They invite curiosity."
Indeed, the unusual sensitivity being brought to design for children, including furniture and interiors, isn't just a case of applying such adult-world standards as wit, complexity and sophistication to products for small fry, but a recognition that such attributes are of particular if not more importance when the end users are children. "The furniture and toys in a space are all contributing to the quality of the child's ability to play, think and reflect," says Elizabeth Morley, principal of the Laboratory School at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto. "It might be the most beautiful playroom in the world, but if it doesn't contribute to the child's ability to play, think and reflect, it's not successful."
"We live in a world," adds Brigitte Alomes of the West Coast studio Natural Pod, which creates customized environments, often involving multi-use furniture and play pods, for schools, daycares and private homes, "where children are over-stimulated and overscheduled, which can result in stressed-out children now and in the future. It is important to create calming spaces where children can simply be."
And simply want to be.
While much of the kid-focused design on the market today satisfies many parents' desire for clean, simple lines, natural materials, general safety and durability, it also more than often speaks directly to kids, addressing their needs and expectations through an inventive use of colour and shape, the stimulation of creative expression and even the encouragement of physical play.
Internationally, designs such as Marc Newson's stackable Bunky beds and Oiva Toikka's Paradise Tree coat stands come to mind for their category-expanding blend of cartoonish exuberance and real practicality. Both of those items were created for Italy-based Magis's Me Too collection, a children'sfurniture line that aims to, in the words of Magis president Eugenio Perazza, "correspond to [a child's] world, which is different from the adult one, not only for its dimensions but also for its values."
Canadian retailer Peter Emmenegger, co-owner of the online store Inquisitivekid.com, takes an equally earnest approach, stating that his "carefully selected products" are intended to "encourage creativity, instill independence and ... foster a sense of self."
Not coincidentally, his dedication to creating "stimulating aesthetic environment[s] inspired by modern learning theories" was inspired by a very personal event: the premature birth of his second daughter nine years ago. "After a long two and a half months at the hospital, she came home with us," he writes on his website. "That's when we realized our journey had only begun."
These days, it's a journey that many designers and retailers are taking for both creative and emotional reasons. Think of the results as a new and improved form of child's play.
Special to The Globe and Mail
THE ROOTS OF DESIGN FOR KIDS
Although contemporary designers are breaking new ground when it comes to products for children, many of their forebears over the past 100 years also took a stab at the category, as the New York-based Museum of Modern Art's current survey of 20th-century design for small fry demonstrates.
Billed as "the first large-scale overview of the modernist preoccupation with children and childhood as a paradigm for progressive design thinking,"
Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900–2000 examines disciplines that the museum says have been "underrepresented in design history and often considered separately," including clothing, furniture and books, playground and nursery design, toys and games and children's hospitals and safety equipment.
Citing the Swedish design reformer Ellen Key's book Century of the Child as the catalyst for "a period of intensified focus and progressive thinking regarding the rights, development and well-being of children," the show looks at both individual and collective visions since 1900 for the material world of kids, both utopian and dark.
"In this period," the museum says, "children have been central to the concerns, ambitions and activities of modern architects and designers both famous and unsung." And this was largely before Sesame Street heralded today's kidcentric world.
Century of the Child is on at MoMA until Nov. 5. For more information, visit www.moma.org. – Danny Sinopoli