It's never too early to cultivate a sense of style, though whether a baby's introduction to furniture and ambience has any permanent imprinting effect remains to be seen.
Retailers certainly have raised the bar in recent years with the offerings for nursery and toddler furniture. Safety, of course, remains at the top of the list. Just five years ago, for example, important changes were made to crib design with the outlawing of drop sides.
Some will argue that buying a crib or children's furniture these days has more to do with parents' styles and sensibilities. Those who like a continuity or design flow in their homes -- indoors and out -- will also opt for similar quality and styles in children's furnishings. It is a category that has taken off, and retailers like RH Baby & Child (Restoration Hardware) and PB Kids (Pottery Barn) offer pieces that appeal aesthetically to their core customer. Specialty retailers like the Land of Nod and Galt Baby (www.galtbaby.com), which bills itself as "a modern baby lifestyle shop," further the choices.
When it comes to outfitting the rest of a nursery or child's room (often with an eye to growing in the space), there are plenty of options for going the traditional route, retro or thoroughly modern, with dressers, storage and desks. Add to that the expansive choices for fun wallcoverings and bedding (well beyond licensed characters), and a child's room can be fun, colorful, engaging and inspirational.
"In the past few years, I've seen nursery design elevate to a high level of chic," says Los Angeles designer Betsy Burnham. "Clients are asking for better quality furnishings, rugs, lighting -- even artwork -- for their little ones, and we're having a lot of fun with creative design details.
European designs now are more accessible, she says, and manufacturers have recognized a hole in the marketplace -- especially at the high end.
"There's no longer the idea of 'Let's just make do with my sisters' crib,' or 'Let's do the nursery last.' Or 'We don't need to frame that art.' The nursery (and child's room) is just as hip and cool as the rest of the house."
Increased demand for better style and quality has led exactly to those goods. It's not difficult to find either high-end or well-constructed furniture in a choice of woods and finishes that are analogous to those in the prime real estate of a home.
And with that, there has been an uptick in prices, as the upgrades are not designed to be throwaway or destined for resale. At Nursery Works, whose clients include celebrities like Beyonce and Jay Z as well as Gwyneth Paltrow, price tags are not for the faint of heart. Some cribs cost as much as $7,500.
To that point, cribs, for example, are designed to last longer than the first few months of a baby's life. Many can be converted to toddler beds, and some even transition into adult-sized daybeds.
There are cribs fit for princesses and princes, highly carved in provincial styles or even accented with 24-karat-gold plating, or acrylic cribs that are sheer or smoky. There are simple, modern silhouettes in playful colors such as Kelly green, turquoise, lavender or hot pink. In addition, dressers, storage pieces and desks come in an assortment of styles, some with fun shapes and vivid colors.
One New York-based gallery, Kinder Modern, specializes in curated vintage children's designs from the 20th century -- with pieces from modernists like Alvar Aalto and Hans Wegner. In addition, there is a stable of fresh designs from an international roster of pros, each of whom approach with an eye to intriguing form, color and needed function.
Designers Lauren Larson and Christian Lopez Swafford of Material Lust like to think of their pieces as creating "subconscious heirlooms by injecting high design into the minds of growing children."
"I actually don't believe in toddler beds," says Burnham. "I don't design for the moment. I go from crib to bed. And larger pieces of furniture may need to change. But as the child gets older, you can change fabrics at the window or art on the walls. Get a rug. Get more sophisticated accessories. Change out the hardware (on a cabinet). Get (interesting) lighting. And art can be a revolving gallery."
One reason nursery and kids' room design has ramped up has to do with lifestyle shifts. "Our clients have gotten more savvy over the past decade or two," says Burnham, who says that returning clients come back when they're expecting and ask for her expertise in fashioning a room for their baby.
The desire to create a sense of continuity throughout a home -- as evidenced by the explosion in well-designed outdoor furnishings -- has been a strong motivator for manufacturers. Even finishes have been expanded -- from natural maples and whites to a range of colors and even "weathered" looks and grays.
"We are definitely going lighter, if not white," says Burnham. "We like driftwood finishes and gray painted pieces. Ivories with taupes for a luxury baby vibe or white plus color. If a couple's taste is dark or black, we might transition to something taupe. There may be a mid-century eclectic vibe. But no matter what the style, everything will be on a par."
Burnham feels that traditional palettes of pink and blue have moved into brighter, bolder hues -- just not necessarily primary color combinations. "If it's pink, it's a cameo pink cashmere blanket, not the whole room. And patterns can be sophisticated -- I covered the cushion of a daybed in a nursery in watermelon pink ikat, for example. There are obviously a lot of ethnic patterns that work -- world traveled ethnic is in vogue, like vintage kuba cloth."
How much can a nicely decorated room shape a child's tastes and personalities?
"If parents take the time to think about a child's surroundings -- if you elevate the taste level, actually frame their art work and create a gallery wall -- it gives a sense of ownership."
And there is no doubt that it's one that can be a positive influence, fostering sweet dreams as well as creative ones.
-- Betsy Burnham Design, 323-857-1854, www.burnhamdesign.com
-- Farrow & Ball, 888-511-1121, us.farrow-ball.com
-- Kinder Modern, 917-979-2723, www.kindermodern.com
-- Notte Fatata, 786-332-4104, www.nottefatata.com
-- Nursery Works, 323-728-8988, www.nurseryworks.net
-- The Land of Nod, 800-933-9904, www.landofnod.com
-- PB Kids, 800-993-4923. www.pbkids.com
-- RH Baby & Child (Restoration Hardware), 800-910-9836, www.rhbabyandchild.com
-- Smartstuff Furniture for Kids, www.smartstufffurniture.com
-- Stokke Home, 888-299-9092, www.stokke.com
CREATE WITH COLOR
With paint colors, wallcoverings and accessories, you can add plenty of personality to a child's room. Starting out with a neutral crib or bed frame, of course, allows the most design flexibility -- like switching out bedding for a new look.
"I like a bed like the Shaker-style Haven at RH Baby & Child because it's not masculine or feminine and it works in any room. It's straightforward and classic," says LA designer Betsy Burnham. "My design is not super decorative -- it's a little more edited."
The palette no longer needs to be limited to soft pinks and blues -- or, if they are used, they're being employed in fresh ways, as with grays, weathered woods or milky chocolates. In those pale hues and combinations, they are more palatable to adults as well -- even more gender neutral, as they may be in more vivid shades.
Painted finishes also may extend beyond solid-colored walls. Paint contrasting shelves or dresser drawers to create a striped look, or brush stripes, stencils or giant polka dots on walls. How about an overscale paisley teardrop on a Farrow & Ball wallpaper? All viable options for making a nursery or child's space stand out.
Ducks and kitties and cartoon characters still may appeal, but today's nursery design is more likely to show a more grown-up face -- allowing fluffy toys and accessories to cater to the child.
Today's nursery furniture has a far more sophisticated look, with some cribs on a par with well-designed furniture of high quality.
But the fun isn't being trumped by function. At Kinder Modern, a New York-based gallery that sells vintage children's furniture as well as contemporary designs, you might find shelving or desks in the shape of birds -- in bold colors or crisp black and white. Or a Danish-style beechwood chair and table from Hans Wegner, circa 1944. Or a red desk and chairs designed in 1963 by Karin Mobring for IKEA -- one that very easily could fit into the latest selections.
(For editorial questions, please contact Clint Hooker at firstname.lastname@example.org.)