The kids are all right

Times Staff Writer

SHORTLY after learning "ma-ma" and "da-da," Ginger and Ruby Rosenheck said "bye-bye" to their high chairs.

"They are the lamest, ugliest, most restraining things in the world and when you have twins, high chairs just take over the room," says their mother Cindy Capobianco. "So at 14 months, we got them their own table and chairs."

"It took a few days to teach them to sit -- and eat -- there," says her husband Rob Rosenheck, who dines nearby with his wife in Ikea metal chairs at an 18th century colonial table. "But now they do and it's so damned cute."

Though the family lives in a two-bedroom rental home that was once a former 1920s hunting lodge in Laurel Canyon, space wasn't really the problem. It was a quality-of-life issue: As children of the 1960s and first-time parents with firmly established tastes -- he is a photographer and filmmaker, she owns a marketing firm that caters to the fashion industry -- neither wanted to dial down their colorfully offbeat approach to decor, a blend of bohemian chic and thrift shop cheek. Nor did they want their living room turned into a minefield of building blocks and Barbies.

They are not alone. A growing number of new moms and dads are overwhelmed by the amount of toddler furnishings on the market but underwhelmed by their appearance and quality. They have seen other parents succumb to the culture of fear that has made baby-proofing a booming business. And they have watched friends and relatives surrender their design sensibilities -- along with the better part of their homes -- to an avalanche of kids' stuff.

"Every house that has kids, there are toys and white plastic furniture everywhere. You can tell the kids rule the house," says designer Jorge Dalinger, the father of a 2-year-old. "You don't have to sacrifice the look of the house for the baby."

Dalinger -- who has turned a four-story architectural box into an ornately detailed Spanish showplace -- and the Rosenhecks refuse to let their stylish homes become peewee playhouses. They believe that listening to their inner interior decorators, taking the necessary safety precautions and setting proper boundaries for their kids make for prettier, happier nests.

This seems a welcome antidote to the "child-centric" home, as Chicago clinical psychologist David deBoer calls it. "Parents who are trying to reclaim their adult space in the house and set appropriate boundaries help foster realistic expectations versus a sense of entitlement. They are not giving their children a grandiose sense of omnipotence that will be shattered in the real world."

Being raised in a design-conscious home can nurture basic social skills, says Arlene Drake, a licensed marriage family therapist in Encino. "It instills a sense of the value of things. It helps children to be respectful of other people's possessions and their own. When you never say "don't touch" to kids, that's too permissive. What they learn at home is what they take out into the world."

Professional decorators, naturally, applaud this notion. "All the Alexanders and Ashleys who stay up until 11 o'clock and are allowed to draw on the walls because their parents put up vinyl wallpaper are going to end up in therapy because they don't know what's appropriate," says Andrew Baseman, who decorated the set of the forthcoming film "The Nanny Diaries."

In recent years, the Manhattan-based interior designer has noticed parents opting for grown-up furnishings such as vintage wallpapers, higher-maintenance wool carpets and upholstered storage ottomans that can be used to stash toys. "I am seeing more people with older children who are growing up sophisticated about design. Maybe some parents actually enjoy sugary pastel colors, but you don't have to give kids pink or blue bedrooms."

For the Rosenhecks, simple whitewashed walls suffice for their daughters' room, which is filled with tidily organized rainbow-bright toys. Ginger and Ruby sleep in wooden cribs without bumpers because that's how mom grew up. In many ways, the Rosenhecks are doing what they never quite imagined they'd do: They are becoming like their own parents, raising kids the way they were brought up.

Both spent their early years in 1960s modern homes in suburban New Jersey. They were orderly, decidedly adult environments with comfortable dens where the family hung out and fancier rooms that were reserved for company.

Back then, Capobianco recalls, the bowl of hazelnuts and a heavy metal nutcracker in her childhood family room were not considered a choking hazard or a broken finger waiting to happen. "Today's parents tend to overprotect their kids," she says, scoffing at the notion of the latest infant fad, a warmer for baby wipes. "If [the kids] can't deal with a cold wipe, how are they going to deal with not getting a job?"

Rosenheck laughs when he tells about an in-home consultation with a San Fernando Valley store that specializes in selling and installing baby safety products. "They gave us a laundry list that ran to $3,500," he recalls. "They wanted to put every electrical cord in a sheath and put bumpers on every piece of furniture."

Instead, Rosenheck used standard cabinet latches and electrical outlet covers, put an earthquake strap around the TV, and added four doorway gates. "Our philosophy of parenting drives what we've done," says Capobianco, a work-from-home mom. "The most important thing is to pay attention to your kids."

Ginger and Ruby, now 1 1/2 , are allowed everywhere except the kitchen and their parents' room. "We want them to see the world as a safe and open place. They crawl and climb up on furniture and if they fall, we wait to see how they react instead of freaking out and making them fearful," Capobianco says. "Most of the time, they just get up and keep going."

They believe that toddlers understand more than they can communicate. After tugging on a cord attached to one of Rosenheck's favorite table lamps a few times, Ginger and Ruby discovered it would topple onto the side table by the living room couch. Dad caught them in the act and saved the lamp from being smashed. But when he went to put the lamp back, he not only noticed some hairline cracks in the ceramic base, but also an imprint identifying the lamp as a Martz, a highly collectible midcentury design.

"I just thought it looked cool," says Rosenheck, who picked it up at a vintage furniture store. "I had no idea it was worth anything," he adds with a laugh, "and now it isn't."

The couple wouldn't have it any other way. "I don't think we could've transformed the house so that we would be living in their world," he says. "We welcomed them into ours."

In this artsy, groovy place, Ginger and Ruby are kids in an eye-candy store. On the walls of their living-dining room, there is an Egyptian-themed stained glass window, odd bits of folk art, estate sale paintings, and Rosenheck's photos of Joshua Tree landscapes and portraits of his kids as newborns.

The vaulted Tudor-style family room with a banquette and daybed covered in Indian and Moroccan fabrics and pillows has a TV that is never on when the kids are awake. Instead the room serves as a stage for family jam sessions, with dad on guitar and the kids on toy pianos and percussion. "We don't buy anything that needs batteries," he says. "We really want them to bring their imagination to things." There is an orange bucket in the room to keep stuffed animals and dolls in one place. "Kids learn quickly," Rosenheck says, "and they can live in an adult house."

SOFIA DALINGER does not sleep in a cutesy powder pink nursery. The only indications that her parents' former sitting room is now 2-year-old Sofia's domain is an elaborate wrought iron fireplace screen draped with stuffed animals and a hand-built Spanish crib designed by her father, Jorge. Otherwise, the room is awash in earthy ochre, olive, terra cotta and umber -- the colors Dalinger himself grew up with in a stucco and red-tiled hacienda in Seville. Old World sconces hang over Sofia's crib between golden chenille curtains. The walls are antique glazed with a stenciled damask motif; the furniture is dark and hefty.

It is a baby's room with a grown-up sensibility, an extension of -- not an exception to -- the aesthetic rules of the roost. For Sofia, that means growing up with wood floors, terra-cotta pavers in the patio and lots of wrought iron.

Dalinger strives for authenticity, creating a home that gives his Spanish-speaking daughter a strong sense of her roots. Home, for him, is a way of communicating cultural identity, and his take is romantic bordering on baroque, with armor-clad conquistadors standing sentry at the front door and enormous lanterns made of iron and mica hanging in the two-stories-high living room. "My style is, without a doubt, very southern Spanish, Mediterranean and Moorish, with a touch of Gothic," he says.

The latter influence is especially evident in Dalinger's preference for high pointed arches and a cross-shaped cutout detail that he designed for woodwork, which looks like it belongs on the entry to a monastery.

Dalinger, who has parlayed an earlier career in fashion into a couture decor business (www.dalingerdesigns.com), used this cross cutout in the safety doors mounted on the staircase; he designed them for Sofia instead of using everyday baby gates. He also designed iron dragons, another decorative motif in the house, serving as corbels in archways and arms on an outdoor sofa.

"People say that's not good for a baby," he says with a pout. "One day she was running and banged her head on the iron work, but nothing is 100% safe. She has gotten smarter and now she holds onto the railing and walks. She has a smile on her face all day. And all my friends tease me that I am going to send her to school with a wrought iron lunch box."

His friends might have a point. Over the seven years he has lived in the house, Dalinger has spent in the neighborhood of $350,000 and employed dozens of tradesmen and his own skills as a furniture and lighting designer and decorative painter to transform a structure he refers to as a "wacko mid-'70s modern box with cottage cheese stucco."

Dalinger, who christened the house "El Castillo," admits to an obsession with details. On a recent visit, he was found conferring with a wood carver he had flown over from Spain to install elaborate paneled ceilings.

His passion for Spanish design is so strong that in the years he has lived there, Dalinger has not let marriage (to Enriqueta, a model) and fatherhood deter him from his artistic vision. Even his golden-colored cats, Lolita and Pulgita, he says, "match the color scheme of the house."

At 14 weeks, Maverick Maltin, the son of DayNa Decker and her husband, Andrew Maltin, happily bunks in his parents' room. He sleeps in a swank white lacquer and solid wood Duc Duc crib with leather handles that match his dresser with a changing table on top. Fortunately the boom in miniaturized modern furniture for kids made shopping for the decor scheme easier.

Finding baby furniture that fit Decker's domestic policy, which she outlines as "homes that feel masculine and sexy," was a priority. The former Black Velvet Scotch model, who now designs a line of luxury candles, recalls the first time she met her Internet entrepreneur husband: "He had a lot of bright artwork and wall colors. I really had to tone things down."

"I had contemporary furniture that was contemporary in the 1980s," Maltin says. He bought the late '50s glass-walled hillside property in 2001. "The house was not relevant, it was just a shack where I could sprawl out and be inspired by the view."

ON a side street off Mulholland Drive with a view of the San Fernando Valley, the so-called shack had a bachelor pad open layout and pedigree, having once housed an unmarried Richard Gere. Decker took advantage of the ambient light, making the rooms cozier by painting walls taupe and "nearly-black brown" -- tones that complemented the radiant-heated natural slate floors that are original to the house.

When it came time to redecorate, Decker, who draws inspiration from Donna Karan Home and Armani Casa, says she opted for "eco-couture, high design that brings in natural elements." In the bedroom, she achieved the effect economically with West Elm Capiz shell pendants flanking a platform bed loaded with animal-patterned pillows. Solid wooden stools by William Earle that look like giant gems add a chic rusticity to the dramatic living room, as does the free-form coffee table cut from a slab of tree.

While the room looks right-now sharp, it's more what you'd expect from a newlywed career couple than new parents. There is one recent addition, however: a glider upholstered in beige faux suede, the only chair the new mom could find for rocking her son to sleep.

"The house wasn't much before DayNa got here," Maltin says. Now that it finally is, they say, their son is "going to have to adapt to us."

"Although," Maltin adds, looking at the hard slate floors and then at his baby boy, "we may just need to get him little kneepads."

david.keeps@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Kid-friendly can look smart too

Not every mom and dad is a fan of baby-proofing tactics and products. Here, Rob Rosenheck and Jorge Dalinger, fathers of toddlers, offer some creative solutions.

Get out of the gate

Paint and stain can make an improvement on store-bought safety gates, and websites such as www.babygates.com offer models made from beechwood that go with many architectural styles. For a more custom look, Dalinger had doors made with Gothic crosses cut out of the center. "My daughter is just tall enough to look through and put her mouth up to it so I can give her a kiss," he says.

Make a latch to match

Instead of installing the common plastic, interior cabinet latches that are hard for unsuspecting adults to open, Dalinger devised his own that match the wood on cabinetry. The design -- a decorative piece of wood that is mounted on the exterior and can be spun like a dial to hold doors shut -- is easy on the eyes. Placed on the top edge of cabinets, out of toddlers' reach, they are also simple for grown-ups to operate.

Give them space

"We don't leave anything fragile or dangerous lying around, but we don't believe in putting things out of reach," says Rosenheck. The father of twins has a large wall of shelves filled with a collection of records and books. For a few days, Ginger and Ruby grabbed things off the shelves. Dad pulled a switch play, adding an easily accessible corner bookcase filled with their toys and books next to his shelves. "Now," he says, "they're much more curious and focused on what's on their bookcase."

Paint what's plug ugly

"Unfortunately everything they sell to protect kids is plastic and white and cheap," says Dalinger. An electrical outlet cap was necessary but spoiled the look of the dining room walls, shown here, that he painted himself. "I had to faux finish the cap along with the switch plate," he says.

-- David A. Keeps

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