When decorating a nursery, do you style the child, or does the child style you? At first glance, this may seem a silly question. To be sure, your infant will have opinions of his or her own very soon. Right now, though, you call the shots and your sense of taste prevails. Doesn't it?
Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on how you view a newborn's role in the family. Is the baby an accessory to the parents' existing lifestyle, and so the nursery blends seamlessly into their home's overall decor? Or is parenthood a total upheaval of the status quo and so the infant should be celebrated with its own decor? Parents, interior decorators, retailers and furniture manufacturers line up on different sides of this debate, but all agree there's more at stake here than just pink, blue and Winnie the Pooh.
Rosemary Schneider, who with her mother, Kathryn DeVincentis, runs The Pied Piper, a Baltimore children's store, has seen various trends come and go, but now sees a movement toward babies "going with the flow," as she termed it.
"We've had parents stop here on the way home from the hospital. They have the latest fashions and, almost from birth, they want their kids to have them, too. They buy Ralph Lauren and at 3 months, have their boys dressed like little men in tiny polo shirts, jeans and sweaters. The girls are in little bikinis from Burberrys. It's unbelievable."
When it comes to furnishings, too, such parents tend to make children's rooms fit in with their home's overall ambience. "They're not buying items for the nursery that are decorated with duckies or lambs, but classic and traditional things like needlepoint pillows and hand-hooked rugs."
Kristen Hughes, owner of Lullaby Baby, a children's furnishings store in Columbia, sees the other approach.
"Some parents are really attracted to specialty items like cradles and cribs that are very baby-focused, that have no other purpose than for the nursery and can't be converted into anything else. It's expensive, but some parents want to invest in that," said Hughes. "I'm not a psychologist, but it seems the personality of the mom and dad really plays out in this sort of selection. It's a question of, are we going to adopt a look that says 'we have a baby!' or does the child just blend in?"
Intriguingly, two of Baltimore's leading makers of furnishings for youngsters represent opposite ends of this stylistic spectrum. Stephen Bauer, of Bratt Decor, a children's furniture company he runs with his wife, Mary, is in the "it's an adult's world, deal with it" camp. Alicia Bambara, who with her sister Nan, owns Prince & Company, a manufacturer of deluxe wicker bassinets, insists a baby needs a decor all its own.
"I have this aversion to babies being treated as accessories, as little grown-ups. I don't think babies should wear sequins or overalls with motorcycle logos on them," she said. "What they need is special care and quiet. They need a cocoon."
Bambara, 42, runs Prince & Company from a sunny office in a rambling home on Roland Avenue where she lives with her husband, Andrew, and their children: twins Maxwell and Georgia, 5, and Paul, 2.
Bambara became zealous to "bring grace and elegance back to the nursery" in 2000 when she was living in Washington, pregnant with the twins, and under doctor's orders to stop working. "Being a neurotic, Type-A personality with lots of time on my hands, I started doing research on baby stuff," she said. She didn't like what she saw.
Claiming it was nearly impossible to find plain, one-piece infant undershirts without garish embellishment or even a simple white christening dress, Bambara resorted to laundering and ironing some of her own layette that her mother had stored for more than three decades. Bambara's hope to purchase a woven wicker bassinet like one from her childhood was also dashed. She reluctantly settled for one made from plastic and cardboard which, costing nearly $2,000, was hardly a bargain.
After voicing these frustrations to her sister, the women sensed there might be a niche. Initially, they hoped to import bassinets from China, the Philippines, or another place where weaving is a well-established handicraft. When they found nothing that met their specifications, Nan enrolled in an art course, through which she met a master weaver who made bassinets in Orlando, Fla. "All those horrible jokes about women in college who major in basket weaving!" Bambara sighed. "It's funny how things come around."
A glowing write-up in O, The Oprah Magazine ("I sometimes think of my life as pre- and post-Oprah," Bambara said), gave Prince & Company a kick start and drew the attention of well-heeled clients in New York, Los Angeles and Europe. Prince & Company now has nine models of bassinets, with names such as "Swan Lake" and "Truly Scrumptious." Elaborately swagged with luxurious imported fabrics like silk organza, they are generously sized - 44 inches long, 23 inches wide and 36 inches high - so a child can sleep in one until he or she is about 8 months old.
"No one else does what we do. It is extremely labor intensive, but that's what distinguishes our products," Bambara said, as she explained that the bassinets are intended as family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. What's more important, however, is her insistence that such frilly, frothy confections affect the whole household's behavior. "It makes people quieter and more careful when they're around it," she concluded. "I am on a mission. I want babies to be babied."
Bauer of Bratt Decor has a mission, too. He doesn't want adults to be babied. Indeed, his company's name is its own provocation, hinting that Mommy and Daddy, not the brat (Bauer added an extra 't' just for the heck of it) is in control. "If the name bothers you, you probably aren't my customer," he said, while standing in his store at Belvedere Square.
Bauer grew up in East London, South Africa, and moved to Cape Town as a young man to study graphic arts. He worked in advertising there and, briefly, in New York, before coming to Baltimore in 1985, where he became a sought-after illustrator.
Like many husbands, he gave scant thought to baby furnishings until Mary became pregnant in 1995. (They now have two sons, Sebastian, 11, and Raiff, 8.) Interior design was important to them, but while shopping for nursery items the Bauers found nothing that could go with their eclectic blend of antiques at home. "We were dismally disappointed. Everything was all blond wood, painted white and insanely boring," Bauer recalled. "Right then and there, my wife and I decided there was a gap in the market, and we would start a company."
Their goal was to create furniture that's nearly stealth in its childish usage: changing tables that can be effortlessly transformed into handsome bureaus, or cribs that convert into sleek settees. Bauer's first design, in fact, was a baby crib made from wrought iron and adorned with a plume of ostrich feathers. Called "Casablanca," according to Bauer it was "very bold, dramatic and French-American."
It was also a hit. Exactly one year after looking for furniture to buy, Bauer's Casablanca crib was in the window of a baby store on New York's Madison Avenue. Other models - nearly 100 pieces in all - have followed, and Bratt Decor can now be found in more than 500 stores nationwide. The Bauers plan to open more of their own shops, too, in Washington, next, with plans for Chicago and Dallas.
"We've run kicking and screaming away from bunnies, bows and balloons, and straight toward furniture parents could be proud of. We are making baby furniture serious, even if we don't appeal to everyone." Those who do find it appealing include Lance Armstrong, Heidi Klum and photographer Annie Leibowitz - and Angela Class, a homemaker in Hunt Valley.
She's furnished rooms for her son, Deemer, now 13, and three daughters, Marisa, 9; Cabrini, 6; and Ava, 4. Class admitted: "I am not traditional, but more like Bratt Decor. I like things that are fun and funky. I personally don't think the baby notices, so I wanted things to be my style. I'm not the cutesie-cutesie type."
This approach is increasingly popular, especially among older parents, according to Sherri Blum, an interior designer in Westminster whose company, Jack and Jill Interiors, specializes in babies' rooms.
"When couples start having children in their mid-30s or early 40s, they have a permanent home, not a starter home, they are often both working, and have money to spend," Blum said. "For people like this, the world doesn't come to a screeching halt when the baby comes. They don't really want to disrupt their lifestyle, and will decorate the nursery in a way that goes with the rest of the house."
While it's of paramount importance to create a space that is safe for the child, Blum said this can still allow a very sophisticated look, such as black and white toile fabric, a chandelier, and an armoire in which to hide a changing table. "The great thing is, the baby doesn't care."
Perhaps not. But this misses the point altogether for Dahlia Bennett, a homemaker from Guilford, and mother of daughters Kaeley, 7, and Payton, 5, as well as a 15-month-old boy named Jackson. "We have the whole house to furnish," Bennett said. "Why can't the nursery be fun?"
Bennett believes it is not only comforting for the children to be surrounded by childlike whimsy - her daughters' rooms are done up in pink and green Lilly Pulitzer fabrics; Jackson's room has a sailboat motif - but is actually better for her, too.
"A lot of times, I find when I walk into the baby's room, I feel like I'm somehow escaping," she said. "If I've had a hard day, I take a deep breath, and the colors and the baby-ish decoration remind me of what it's like to be young again."
To learn more about designers discussed in this article
" Bratt Decor, 410-464-9400, brattdecor.com
" Prince & Company, 800-783-6160, princebassinets.com
" Sherri Blum, Jack and Jill Interiors, 410-857-0220, jackandjillinteriors.com
Written by: Stephen G. Henderson