“Children are our future” is a well recurring motif that everyone may have heard. It is a well-rooted, truthful phrase that may have stuck with us from our school days. Stemming out from the belief that the future is inevitably dependent on children, there is the dire need for a child to be brought up in an environment that can actively nurture, add to their curiosity and keep them safe. The effort that any society can put into the weaker clusters of its population is a direct indication of its development and quality of life—and this is immensely reflected in the facet of childcare. Throughout history, there are many records of kids’ furniture that cater specifically to the anatomical proportions of a child. The common typology of kids’ furniture can be segregated into two different categories:
- Furniture that accommodates the relationship between a child and a guardian such as cradles, high chairs, strollers, etc.
- Furniture that can be independently used by children such as walkers, playsets, dollhouses, etc.
Let’s explore the many instances of kids’ furniture throughout history and understand the general variations on the outlook of child care and safety with a trip through the times.
Kids’ Furniture and the Ancients
The earliest known records of kids’ furniture being utilized are from the Egyptian and Greek Civilizations. With the old patriarchal family structure, the children did not have rooms or spaces designated for them but rather were expected to adapt to the world of the adults. Kids’ furniture in this era was created to protect the child, keep them out of the way and ensure that they remained under sanitary conditions.
The ancient Egyptians harboured miniature versions of beds intended for adults as kids’ beds. The ancient Greeks made use of high chairs and potties that rendered clean, safe and sanitary furniture for the use of children under the guidance of an adult. The Greeks also had a class of furniture dedicated to children with special needs. It is often assumed that these clay furniture catering to children were a luxury only available to the wealthier families given their prevalence in amphora and vases.
The Industrial Revolution – The Kids’ Room
The idea of accommodating a children’s room into the layout of residences had become widespread during the 18th century. This space was envisioned to be a common sleeping room with multiple beds—a room that would later be known as the nursery. This era witnessed the large-scale production of industrial and interior goods owing to the industrial revolution and the rampant pace of scientific and technical discoveries.
Some of the earliest known modern kids’ furniture can be found in the catalogues of the Austrian designer Michael Thonet, who was dexterous in the craft of wood bending. His cane chair paved the way for the modern high chair or feeding chair with an affixed tray and a leg rest that was tailored to the ergonomic needs of a child.
The Industrial Era was also the catalyst for the Arts and Craft Movement—a direct response by the artisans and craftsmen of the 19th Century to the usage of industrial goods. Nurseries were re-envisioned during this period, accommodating shelving units and tables in finely crafted wood to host the belongings of the children—a direct inspiration from the bourgeois families of the Renaissance. The nursery, which was initially intended to be a sleeping area, was reiterated to accompany a study area for the children.
The Bauhaus Take on Kids’ Furniture
The establishment of the Staatliches Bauhaus in 1919 was a definite turning point in the history of design. The institution had successfully married two entities at odds—industrial design and fine arts. What followed was a beautiful amalgamation of mass production with aesthetics, with a strong functional foothold. With an emphasis laid on colour, material and shape, Bauhaus had made a groundbreaking array of iconic kids’ furniture, a few of which are enlisted below.
Influenced by the synaesthetic colour theory of Wassily Kandinsky, Peter Keler designed this unique cradle in 1922, composed of a simple blue circle, two yellow triangles and red squares.
Based on his iconic Red and Blue chair and Zigzag chair, Gerrit Rietveld rendered chic, minimalist and functional high chairs that transformed kids’ furniture from a utilitarian perspective into objects capable of being fashionable statement pieces with a sculptural quality.
Marcel Breuer’s unprecedented idea to combine steel pipes into the table and chair sets resulted in the revolutionary creation of space-saving furniture that did not occupy the space of their mass. This combination of kids’ furniture was widely incorporated into schools and kindergartens of the time. Breuer’s design had inspired many designers that came after him in curating furniture for children specifically in regards to institutional spaces.
The Am Horn, an experimental house, presented as a part of an exhibition in 1923 featured a nursery wing dedicated to kids’ furniture designed by Alma Busher. The ensemble consisted of minimalist cabinets and multicoloured boxes that could be arranged by a child to suit its needs. This was one of the first instances where the nature and function of the furniture relied on the child’s creativity and independence.
Redefining Kids’ Furniture – Montessori Method of Education
Through her many writings on scientific pedagogy, Maria Montessori managed to redefine the general outlook on a child into that of a ‘young adult’. Through her research and experiments, Montessori advocated that children needed to have the right-sized furniture to cater to their growth and stimulus. This included lower beds, lighter tables and chairs that could be easily carried, easy accesses and the ability to move freely. Her teachings have thus led to many refinements in kids’ furniture that promoted child safety, autonomy for children and development.
Montessori methods also resulted in creating learning environments that kept a child in constant contact with nature and caused many reformations in the typology of educational buildings owing to significant changes that the methods brought about to the well-being of the students.
The Modern Designers Join The Game
Following the global appeal of the Montessori Method towards the beginning of the 20th century, many architects began curating designs that were aiding child growth as well as industry-friendly. Some of the most notable kids’ furniture of this era are listed below.
Designed by Alvar Aalto, these chairs and stools are built to imitate the organic forms of nature and to perfectly fit the ergonomics of a child. Aalto perceived this furniture devoid of industrial rigidity and provides a more humanized solution to enrich a child’s life.
Adopting both play and functionality, the Eames Elephant allowed a child to not only have a chair but also an adorable playmate!
On the task of furnishing ‘ the living machine ‘ as per the demands of Le Corbusier, Jean-Prouve had designed a utilitarian school desk that minimally made use of materials. At this juncture, furniture is reconceived to make a stand-in for equipment.
The 1960s saw heavy interest in wood-based simple looking furniture as seen in the Anna Seating Series designed by Karin Mobring for IKEA. With the sweeping spread of wholesale furniture brands like IKEA, people began to embrace the elegance of affordable modern designs with a special focus laid out specifically towards kids’ furniture.
The 70s was a period of experimentation when it came to kids’ furniture. Designers began to delve into the usage of different materials and began to make sculptural and artistic renderings from fibreglass and plastic and because of this, the period is often dubbed “the golden age of children’s furniture”.
Kids’ Furniture and the 21st Century
From what started as mere means to stabilize and have a child stay in place, kids’ furniture has come a long way from being a piece of equipment to being a piece of statement and currently, it settles to be a determinant factor that can represent a child’s independence and its sense of whim and fantasy. The 21st century has created many a masterpiece in the footsteps of its predecessors.
With child-safe materials, adjustable features that can “grow with the child” into adulthood, a general sense of longevity and space-saving qualities, the turn of the century has indeed arrived at a junction that is quite stylish, safe, inclusive and above all, humanizing.
Designs such as the Balans series and Tripp Trapp Chair by Peter Opsvik accommodate a durable design that can be helpful to many a middle-class family whilst fitting into the ideals of a modern home.
Superfluous and fluidic designs such as the VOXEL Mini-series by Karim Rashid keeps the modern man or child, for that matter, guessing and hoping about all the wonders that the future of design can hold. The field of kids’ furniture has only begun treading on the ideas of independence and wonder that are instilled in a child and it still has entirely new dimensions to unfold.
- Pavlina Vodenova (2019). History of Children’s Furniture and Interior (University of Forestry). Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339103834_HISTORY_OF_CHILDREN’S_FURNITURE_AND_INTERIOR [Accessed on 24 April 2021].
- Laura Regensdorf (2012). Shaping The Future. Available at: https://www.elledecor.com/design-decorate/g268/childrens-design-history/?slide=10 [Accessed 25 April 2021].