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HOME DESIGN : A SPECIAL ISSUE OF ORANGE COUNTY LIFE : Kids’ Stuff : Fantasy Furnishings With Emphasis on Imagination Give Children’s Rooms Flair

Pamela Marin is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Heading home from the beach one blistering day last month, Gina Santana and Donita Manzo pulled off the freeway at a children’s furniture store in Tustin.

Manzo and her children tagged along as Santana--cradling her infant son while keeping an eye on her restive 3-year-old daughter--strolled around a showroom filled with tidy bedroom sets.

She stopped a few times to check price tags. She asked a few questions. And when she stepped back into the dry heat of the afternoon, she wasn’t any closer to making a decision on new furniture for her daughter, Brianne.

“I’m thinking of getting a little bedroom set for Bree,” Santana said, “but it’s hard to know what to get her because when you think about kids’ furniture--what can you get that will last their whole childhood? By the time she’s 10, she’ll want something different, then by the time she’s 13 or 14, she’ll want to change it again.

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“I guess all I know right now,” said the Brea mother, “is I’m not spending more than $1,200--tops!”

Like many young parents planning their kids’ rooms, Santana has a clear eye on the bottom line. And as for her difficulty in deciding on decor, she’s surely not alone on that score either.

“You have to take a lot into consideration when you decorate a child’s bedroom,” said Sandra Hayes, president of the Orange County chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers.

“Usually it’s a small room, and it’s serving three purposes: a place to sleep, a place to play, a place to study. It’s their private little corner of the world,” she said.

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“Children are very creative and imaginative and you want to promote that when you work on their rooms,” said Hayes, suggesting simple, durable furniture with “clean lines,” accented by cartoon or storybook characters painted on the walls, or inexpensive wall-coverings readily available at most paint stores.

“There’s so much out there now for children’s rooms; the market has really blossomed,” she said. “If you just walk through a bedding section in any department store you can get tons of ideas. You should take your child with you when you go, and let him or her be part of the decorating process.”

Joyce Lachenmyer, manager of Kids Room in Tustin--the store Santana and Manzo browsed recently--said customers generally switch from nursery to children’s furniture when their children are 3 or 4 years old.

“Our typical customer is a pregnant woman, with her 3-year-old in tow,” said Lachenmyer. “She comes in during the week, scouts around, then comes back with the husband on Saturday.”

So should a 3-year-old be included in decorating decisions?

Definitely, said designer Elsa Rosene of Corona del Mar.

“I’ve had a number of children as young as 3 pick their own wallpaper and fabrics,” said Rosene, who’s been in the business for 20 years. “I remember this one particular 3-year-old--we had talked about a fabric for her room on one visit, and the next time I came over, I was talking with her mother and the little girl pointed to (the fabric) and said, ‘That’s mine!’ She was adamant about it.”

Rosene said the final design of that little girl’s room, furnished in whitewashed oak, included a trundle daybed, a highboy chest of drawers, a bedside table and a toy chest. Rosene used two patterned fabrics for the drapes, bedcovers, cushions and throw pillows.

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“The furniture was very good quality,” she said, “something that the child can have forever, can pass down to her kids. I don’t per se use children’s furniture. I use good furniture that will last a long time.”

As was the case with that particular toddler, the latest trend is toward more sophisticated furnishings for youngsters, Rosene said.

“People are getting away from doing really whimsical design,” she said. “In a nursery, sure, but for 3 or 4 (years old), we go more sophisticated. In another year or two they will be playing with computers, and because of that, they have their computer furniture, which gives the room a more high-tech feeling.”

Designer Michael Koski agrees with Hayes and Rosene that children should be included in the decorating process, but the Laguna Niguel designer of two decades is all for whimsy. Two recent examples:

A metal statue of a horse, six feet tall from hoofs to ears, parked in the room of a 10-year-old Laguna Beach boy. (“I wanted something he could throw his clothes on,” explained Koski, “and this horse looks great draped in clothes.”)

Hand-painted wallpaper, all lavenders and purples and blues, in the Coto de Caza bedroom of a 5-year-old girl. (“It looks like an abstract painting wrapped around the whole room,” said the designer.)

If Koski’s designs tend to be extravagant, they only match the price: On average , he said, a child’s room runs $10,000. So sure, this is the high end--but it’s also the child’s world, according to Koski, with the emphasis on playfulness and visual distinction.

“You have to keep in mind that you’re building memories,” he said. “Don’t you have very vivid memories of the space you lived in as a child? When you design a child’s room, you’re providing a place for a lifetime of memories. You have to think that far into the future.

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“When I was little, my dad took the attic of our house and built a knotty-pine wonderland for me. It had a sitting area, with a sofa and a nice desk. There was a bed and lots of bookcases. There was great storage, lots of room for baseball pennants on the walls. It was wonderful. I have very, very fond memories of that room. And I’m sure it had something to do with me having a happy childhood.”

Koski also noted the increasingly restrictive dimensions of children’s rooms--a trend he finds lamentable.

“The biggest problem I have these days is that children’s rooms are getting smaller and smaller,” he said. “The newer houses are being built with the maximum number of rooms--it’s a marketing ploy on the part of developers and builders. They want to say the house has four bedrooms and 3 1/2 baths. Well, it might have four bedrooms, but three of them are really tiny. So the kids’ rooms end up being 10 by 10, or 12 by 12 feet. That gives you room for a twin bed, a student desk and a little chest of drawers. It’s like a little jail cell.”

Sheila Hupp has had her chances to decorate children’s rooms for wealthy clients; that’s fun, she said, “custom this and custom that.”

But the El Toro designer finds her greatest challenge--and greatest pleasure--working creatively within the confines of a tight budget.

Hupp said most of her work now is decorating model homes for new housing developments--helping buyers imagine the kind of home they could have . . . if they’d just sign on the dotted line.

“Children’s rooms are a very strong selling point in model homes,” said Hupp. “When the family goes into the house, the kids always head to the bedrooms first, and you hear these little squeals of, ‘I found my room! This is my room!’

“It’s my job to (decorate) in terms of something the people could really do themselves, the kind of furniture they would be able to afford and other things they could do themselves,” she said. “You don’t want them to walk in and say, ‘This is great, but I’d never be able to do this in my house.’ ”

Which makes Hupp particularly proud of a children’s room she decorated recently in a development geared to first-time buyers.

Keeping the potential clients’ limited incomes in mind, the designer used wallpaper borders (available at any wall-covering store) to enliven the painted walls, and coordinated the walls and borders with colorful bedspreads and throw pillows. Total cost--including the “knock-down” furnishings (simply designed, easy-to-assemble discount pieces): about $400.

While that job was an extreme example of cost-conscious decorating, it was not at all out of line with Hupp’s pragmatic view of children’s bedrooms.

“It’s one thing to have a room where you open the door and it looks magnificent,” she said, “but you really have to think about whether the child is going to feel comfortable in there. If you spend all kinds of money, are you going to to be on the kid all the time? Don’t touch this! Don’t spill that!

“You know, kids are always going to take food in there, I don’t care what rules you lay down. Or they’ll put on nail polish sitting on the brand-new white bedspread. Even good kids are going to do something in there that’s going to make a mess. So do you want to be in a position to have a fit because the kid just ruined the $2,000 lace bedspread?

“I think often when children’s rooms are done very elaborately it’s because that’s the way the parent wants it done,” said Hupp. “Kids couldn’t care less whether they have a finely decorated room. They want a place that they feel is theirs. They want to give the room their personality and identity. If you have gorgeous, expensive hand-painted wallpaper, how do you feel about the kid putting up a poster? I think it really starts getting away from what the parents meant to do--because they wanted to give their child this really wonderful room. But it defeats the purpose, because now it’s not really the kid’s room, it’s a room the mom loves.

“The way I think of it,” said Hupp, mother of two grown children, “a child’s bedroom is a refuge. It’s the one room in the house where that child can express the first little rumblings of independence.”


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