Monday, October 18, 2010

Transforming Pee-wee’s Playhouse

By Beth Herman

For a bilingual 3-year-old in Washington, her father’s Russian heritage and a TV program’s format resulted in an unprecedented bedroom design challenge where Vienna, Va.-based interior designer Rachel James was concerned.

As a guest designer on HGTV’s child-centric program “Kidspace,” the former elementary, middle and high school guidance counselor-turned-designer, celebrated for her inspired children’s designs, set out to honor the family’s legacy but also to cultivate the interests of a spirited toddler with a predilection for nesting, reading and hide-and-seek – all on a $1,000 budget. The result: a Russian-themed room that reflected the cathedrals of St. Petersburg, including a headboard reminiscent of the fabled onion domes of Russian architecture, and a special domed tent into which the child could escape with books and just about anything else.

“In real life,” James elaborated, “the cathedral domes are candy-colored.” To that end a wooden headboard was “jigsawed out,” with batting, and the colorful fabric stretched across. The top of the headboard consisted of wooden sconces turned upside-down to emulate the points of the cathedral: high and low. The English and Russian alphabets were splashed across an opposite wall, and instead of an all-too-popular pink, the designer chose a kid-friendly but more elegant shade of purple, with a little chandelier to boot, so that as the child grows there will be less need for an additional redecorating expenditure. “It spoke to the needs of the parents and the child’s own preferences,” James said, “and it also is a fun, colorful room for her to grow up in.”

Don’t Eat Paste

Color palette, parental ideas and the child’s personality all withstanding, James takes the concept of kids’ design quite seriously when it comes to issues of safety, functionality and the kinds of toxic emissions readily found in such items as carpeting, where glue, backing and stain guards contain high levels of VOC’s. “In a study I think was done in Europe,” James said, “they actually found those compounds in breast milk, so it’s getting to the child somehow.” The designer said that more and more, parents are interested in eco-friendly carpeting and while she believes no product is 100 percent green, there are rugs made of natural wool and backing. And on the heels of hundreds of reported child choking fatalities, James’ drapery workroom, Stephenson Vestal, is the noted inventor and initial manufacturer of the Safe-T-Shade, a cordless conveyor for Roman and Balloon shades that eliminates visible cords and their inherent threats to young children. They work on a spring issue, according to James, and have been endorsed by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. She uses them liberally, when warranted, in her kids’ room designs.

Out Came the Sun

Where window treatments are concerned, James recalled a client whose 4-year-old was waking up each day at about 4 in the morning, and the exhausted parents came to her inquiring about blackout shades. Incorporating such with their daughter’s penchant for princesses and ball gowns (translation: things that are sparkly, magical, light and airy) presented another design challenge for James.

“Window treatments are very expensive and good design, along with quality furniture, is also very expensive,” James said candidly. “And kids grow so fast and their preferences change so much, sometimes every day, the majority of my clients want something that’s going to grow with the child.” Blackout lining, for example, can be put into almost any kind of fabric aside from a sheer or mesh, so James took the child’s two favorite colors, pink and a “turquoise-y blue,” in a shimmery fabric, and made drapery panels that contained the blackout element. A standard pleat and traversing rod on top, which helps them open and close quickly, finished the concept. “It’s flashy and iridescent,” James recalled, “and at 12, she’ll like it. Maybe even at 16 or college age, she’ll like it.”

According to James, while there are plenty of “child-centered, child-themed, child-sized things, and some of these things are so hopelessly adorable you can’t help but get a little club chair or mini-desk,” most manufacturers today recognize that people buy things into which children will grow. Sometimes the price point is higher for furniture that lends itself to conversion, and you have to pay for a conversion kit, James said, but for many parents the cost of a kit for when the child makes the transition from crib to bed is better than buying a whole new bed, for example. “It all depends on the motivation of the client to keep redoing the room,” she added.

Where the Wild Things Are

Fabrics-wise, especially for kids of toddler age, James said it’s a function of being a kid to smash trucks, spill Kool-Aid or drop popsicles. Stores such as Jo-Ann and entities such as eBay are good resources for more inexpensive and so-called kid-proof fabrics, and people tend to gravitate towards Target, Kmart or Walmart for durable kids’ furnishings and the like. “I have a designer friend with two kids who has just slipcovered everything,” James quipped.

Because of her education and psychology background, James said parents are often excited because they know that she is really in touch with their child’s sensibilities. If the child is older, James includes him or her in the design process by asking about favorite colors, favorite things to do, where and how the child plays, and how the child would describe him or herself.

“I think just like with any other design, there is a balance between functional interiors and beautiful interiors,” James said of her child-centered motifs, adding that she really misses being in school with the kids. “At some point, I’d like to go back into the helping professions, but for now, I really love what I’m doing.”


Anonymous said...

Beth, thank you for a well written and fun article!

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