Beautiful buggies

Along with 4x4s, push chairs or buggies have become part of the urban armoury of status-conscious parents. Pamela Buxton tries them out and looks at some of the design challenges involved.

Britney hasn’t even had her baby yet, but it has already been reported that she owns a ‘pimped up’ Silver Cross. And when Gwyneth Paltrow showed off her new baby, her stylish Bugaboo Frog stroller got more attention than little Apple, doing wonders for the Dutch buggy’s desirability. Buggies, it seems, are no longer commodities, but have become status symbols for the fashion conscious. It’s not just celebrities either – consumers are increasingly prepared to shell out hundreds of pounds in the belief that they are not only buying the best for their baby, but also for their own image.

‘It has become more of a fashion-related industry,’ says Phil Taylor, head of design at Silver Cross, manufacturer of the traditional Balmoral and Kensington prams, as well as a growing range of contemporary buggies. ‘People are more aspirational. It’s like your car in that it’s an extension of your personality and you want to be seen with all the right things,’ he adds.

‘It’s a natural effect of society becoming more design-aware’, says Prima Baby magazine consumer editor Alison Alexander. ‘People realise that they are not just for functionality. They want something a little bit different.’

At the moment, that seems to be the four-wheeler, with two small wheels at the front, rather than the bulky three-wheeler which, while still popular, is now regarded as passé. Brands like Bugaboo, Stokke and Micralite are particularly popular.

Aesthetically, the market no longer tolerates the cutesy, teddy-bear decoration that was prevalent until recently. For example, this year Maclaren – which revolutionised buggy design in 1965 with the invention of the much-imitated umbrella-fold mechanism – turned to designer Lulu Guinness to style its latest model, and has other high profile designer link-ups planned in the near future. But, while the new breed of prams are undeniably sleeker and more stylish, are they better designed?

Things have certainly come a long way in 20 years, says product designer Sebastian Conran, now a director at Conran and Partners. When he first designed buggies for Mothercare back in the 1980s, ‘it was like a camping shop – there was no real investment in mouldings’, he says, giving him great scope for improvement.

But now he suspects that over- rather than under-design is the problem, with prams striving to be so versatile – many boast of being capable of accommodating a new-born up to a four-year-old child – that they have become too complex. The car-seat-cum-pram travel system, for example, will have to be so resilient for car safety reasons that it could be too heavy for pram use and lacking in comfort.

‘Manufacturers have cottoned on to them as status symbols, but you don’t need things to be that complicated. The more features that you build in, the more opportunity there is for failure and misuse,’ he says. ‘There’s too much over-design and not enough intelligent design.’

Conran is currently working on a new design that fulfils this simpler ethos: ‘There’s an opportunity for designing something that is quite flexible and doesn’t try to do everything at once,’ he says, advocating buying two buggies for different uses, including a cheap and cheerful foldable, rather than one that attempts to do everything.

This is already a trend, according to Alexander. ‘New parents are willing to spend money on two or three models – a luxurious pram at first, then a lighter version and a stroller for the holiday. They look forward to changing their pushchair,’ she says.

Silver Cross’s Phil Taylor is concerned that the trend towards lightweight and compact, parent-friendly designs may have gone too far. ‘You mustn’t forget the baby – which is why you have the buggy in the first place,’ he says. ‘I don’t think manufacturers are being irresponsible, but there is a balance to be found between getting something acceptable for the parent and comfortable for the user.’

Comfortable or not, too often the folding mechanisms are not user-friendly for the adult either, says designer David Crisp. ‘If you want a buggy to fold up very small, you need lots of folds, which make it harder to fold and unfold. The more joints you have, the less rigid it becomes,’ he says. Meanwhile, his Micralite pram, launched in 2002, can be folded using just one arm for ultimate ease of use. Similarly, the Maclaren boasts a one-handed, five-second fold.

At Dutch-based Bugaboo, co-founder and designer Max Barenbrug also advocates simplicity, in combination with subjective qualities of beauty, feel and handling, as exemplified in its new Gecko model launched next month, which he describes as ‘the most lean and mean Bugaboo’. Its great advantage, he says, is the positioning of all the workings for seat adjustment and buggy-folding on the same joints beneath the seat, leading to a very light and clear structure, capable of reversing the seat direction and configuration of large and small wheels. ‘It has easy-to-use functionality yet, at the same time, it is beautiful,’ he says.

What Gecko doesn’t do is fold without the removal of the seat. Like Conran, Barenbrug has decided that you can’t have everything – instead designing a simple lift-off mechanism which requires the owner to make, what he calls, ‘an extra step’ when folding. But this, he counters, it not really a compromise – in fact, quite the opposite. ‘If you want a seat to fold with the stroller it is difficult to make a very nice seat. They have small plastic parts and joints under the fabric which the baby is sitting on, which makes it uncomfortable. But the Bugaboo is comfortable,’ he says.

While styling will go in and out of fashion, good design won’t, according to Barenbrug, who is a little uneasy with the idea of his brand being so fashionable. He says, ‘We put a lot of energy into making a quality product that people will want – so then it is bound to become fashionable.’

Meanwhile, will bicycle design soon become equally brand-led? As a ‘personal mobility brand,’ Bugaboo is now turning its attention to the humble two-wheeler. Bicycle manufacturers and cyclists everywhere would do well to be prepared. 3 Special edition stroller, designed by Kate Spade for Maclaren

The Road Test: Bugaboo Gecko

As favoured by both Gwyneth Paltrow and Miranda in Sex and the City, the Bugaboo is one of the most chic brands around. But how does it fare when put through its paces on pavement, park and beach? Looks-wise, the new Gecko (£499 and available in October) is a winner. It attracts envious glances – and the occasional enquiry – from passing parents struggling with bashed-up cheap buggies such as the one I normally use. But as any parent knows, while looks are a bonus, it’s usability that counts. At 7kg, it’s far lighter than a standard three-wheeler and takes up much less room in the car boot. Easy to push one handed, it glides along gracefully on its two large and two small wheels, which can be positioned with either pair at the front or back – an option that I frequently and inadvertently select when unfolding the buggy. A user error undoubtedly – this is certainly a buggy which requires you to study the instructions. The aluminium frame takes either a baby cot or seat which adjusts easily to three positions. The brake is a conveniently positioned hand lever much superior to the foot levers on most buggies and accessories are user-friendly. My only misgiving was the need to remove the seat before folding. In practice, this is an extremely simple manoeuvre, but it is still something harassed parents could do without. Overall however, Gecko looks great and is a joy to use. And in the current climate of buggy-as-status symbol, its price should prove no bar to sales.

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