Small wonders

How do you kick-start the market for high-end kiddie furniture? Pamela Buxton recommends perfectly formed, scaled-down versions of classics

IS CHILDREN’S furniture growing up? While bright colours still dominate much of the market, there are signs that a new aesthetic for junior furniture is emerging. The buzzword is ‘dual ownership’ – furniture that works for both adults and children both functionally and aesthetically. It’s one of the key future directions according to Joanna Feeley, creative director at interiors trend forecaster Trend Bible.

‘Whereas before people may only have applied a design aesthetic to themselves, now they are applying it to their kids’ [stuff] as well,’ says Feeley, adding that the trend is fuelled by a more design-aware mainstream audience and also by pressure on space in the home.

She also points to a general desire for products to be adaptable and multi-functional, and to an increasing crossover between adult and kid trends fuelled by childhood nostalgia. And in this credit-crunch era, Trend Bible expects this to continue as people go out less and entertain more at home, putting the home on show even more.

This idea of dual ownership is visible in the work of several exhibitors at 100% Design. On the Design Factory stand, designer Eiry Rock, who graduated last year, is launching a space-saving chair/table made from ash and MDF. It takes the form of a box with a child’s chair tucked inside from the side to save space when it’s not in use. The box can be used either as a table by the child or as a seat by an adult, reflecting Rock’s interest in creating pieces that balance different usable components.

The No Limit collection, designed by Atsushi Nogimura, also displays a flexibility of use for adult and child alike. Each unit can be used as a small table or stool for an adult or, when turned upside down, as a children’s stool with a lower seat. When stacked or used in combination with other units, it can be configured as storage, as a bookshelf or a partition, and it can be arranged flat as a table or bench.

‘Both children and adults can use No Limit. As you can use it in many ways, it’s not necessary to throw it away when the children grow up. The way of use just changes,’ says Nogimura.

Designers Richard Shed and Sam Johnson have also been exploring this dual ownership area as part of a research project with a leading international toy company. They have come up with a range of 12 designs including multi-use furniture that works on different levels for child and adult, furniture which can be integrated into imaginative play, and furniture with an interactive element that sits somewhere between furniture and games.

‘Our project looked at shared space and developed a series of products that weren’t toys or furniture, but crossed boundaries,’‹ according to Shed. ‘There’s a huge potential for toy manufacturers to diversify a bit and explore this area.’

Such developments might shake up the relatively slow children’s designer furniture market. Apart from a few examples, such as the Oreka range and Magis’s Me Too, both created by an all-star designer line-up, it’s not been an area for massive investment. The reasons are fairly obvious. Because of labour costs, children’s furniture is not necessarily much cheaper than adults, and forking out for premium furniture that the child will soon grow out of is unappealing to those unwilling to see it as a long-term investment.

‘We’re trying to convince people to buy quality that they might keep because it’s such a beautiful object, or pass on to their children. It’s very tricky,’ says Thorsten van Elten, a manufacturer and distributor of design-led furniture.

Another issue, he says, is the added safety criteria required in kids’ furniture, which can be a further disincentive to new design. However, this didn’t stop him commissioning Alexander Taylor to design a children’s rocking chair, a slow burner that has sold steadily over the past three years.

Viaduct, another contemporary furniture specialist, has just started stocking Philippe Starck’s Mini Skool desk, designed by XO in lacquered glass fibre, and a junior version of the Mr Bliss ergonomic rocking stool, also by XO. The desk, in particular, has a cute dinky quality, but Viaduct managing director James Mair thinks that a more fertile area for children’s furniture may well be designs that are perhaps adjustable to suit adults and children, or are sufficiently multi-use for children to appropriate.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that following the recent trend for manufacturers to issue junior versions of design classics, these are often more popular than newer designs. They generally outlast the more transient appeal of contemporary designs according to Simon Alderson, co-founder of Twentytwentyone, which stocks classic children’s furniture by Charles and Ray Eames, Verner Panton and Alvar Aalto as well as newer designs such as Me Too by Magis.

Similarly, Skandium, the Scandinavian design specialist, sells children’s versions of design classics such as Aalto’s robust Stool 60, designed in 1935 but still popular today.

100% Design is sufficiently interested in the children’s market to be considering a special focus on the area next year. Meanwhile, the dual-ownership breed of multi-functional furniture could well be the pragmatic way forward for the design-conscious parent.

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