Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Yeah baby! Post partum design

Most of the things on my desk have baby spew on them and I dress for the show in breast-pump-friendly outfits these days, but my views on good home design haven’t changed all that much since becoming a mom in January. My process has changed of course -- I’ve learned that my first instincts really are best; I don’t have the time or luxury of self-doubt; gone are the weeks spent picking out a single paint color. I must trust myself as a mother – and in turn my instincts as a designer have never been stronger. My goals have changed too – I have always wanted my spaces to be inspiring, coloful, relaxing, stimulating, quirky and personal - now I've added safe as well as easy to clean, maintain and navigate to the list of must-be's for my rooms. And I believe it absolutely can be done. There are compromises – but this is nothing new. It’s what you make of those compromises that determines whether the space is well designed or not. Which is why, I think, homes with an abundance of space – gargantuan great rooms and no limits on space, per se, are often poorly designed spaces – horrible to navigate and style, difficult to clean and maintain and costly to keep warm/cool as appropriate – don’t get me started on energy inefficiencies of some new construction –that’s another whole essay. At the end of the day limitless space, money, time, light, etc., does not a great space make. I still think creativity, especially in spaces for families, rules.

I think design becomes an even greater feature in space when we’re talking about family living. Before kids come, we can style a room that looks great – but the room rarely gets picked apart, no one is walking around under three feet tall; most people using the room aren’t spitting up or streaking grape jelly on the nearest substance as they walk by. These are all design challenges which can’t be styled through – they must be designed through. Furniture and fixtures which can both host and conceal a play area. Pieces on casters that lock have become incredibly fashionable in my house. Finishes and textures which can accommodate spit up and less than frequent washings. (It’s lovely that it’s washable but I need something that is lovely when washable and seldom washed.) This means darker, textured fabrics that are most susceptible to baby-trespassing. Not to mention furniture and shapes in a room that respect people of all heights – it is not necessary to buy the terrible foam core edging for your favorite coffee table or fireplace. I was a terrible snob about this before I had my son and I am sorry – but although nearly everything else has changed – this has not – I’d like to think we can come up with parent-friendly, or at least style-friendly baby and child areas that don’t involve affixing cushions to the sharp points of the furniture. I have learned to have great respect for silent, understated baby proofing. How about a simply lower coffee table, or ottomans as coffee tables - elegance or softness - improving, not covering up, the sharp-edge minefield. This definitely leads me down a more understated, minimalist path – away from my love of old, fragile, shiny things – for the moment. I don’t feel as if I’ve turned my back on my personal style – just adjusted it so it doesn’t break or cause anyone any bleeding.

I have also learned to question nearly everything I have in my space. Do I love it? Does it work? It is only good for style’s sake? Or does it add to the design goal of the room? Do I have the will to express my style without so many shiny, breakable things?

And then there comes the actual space plan -- no matter what I'm doing, I want to see my son clearly – for now. And 21st century multi-tasker that I am, there are times I want to be doing something else while watching him. Maybe two other things. I can’t, for today sequester him to another quadrant of the home where I can close the door and let the space be entirely dedicated to Fisher-Price. And yet, down the road, I have no doubt that this will be a necessity. For today, spaces must be defined well. (And truth be told, the entirely-dedicated room for toys doesn’t exist in my world.) This time it’s not just because “defining the space,” is every designer’s favorite phrase – it’s because I cannot have my son crawl everywhere in my space simply because I like being “wall-free” - an open plan causes all sorts of baby-proofing issues – or challenges as I like to think. But it routes me back to space definition – making sure spaces are not closed – but that they do have boundaries or barriers as it were and this can be accomplished with furniture – ideally easily movable, light and nimble furniture.

When it comes down to it – a child in your life means constant change – constant movement – stages, phases, clothes and toys rotated in and out sometimes on a daily basis. And fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your relationship with your home – this calls for a dynamic and flexible design plan for your home – at least with respect to the d├ęcor – and for the more fortunate and affluent among us – larger scale changes that reflect the needs and wants of babies, who become toddlers, who become little kids, who become big kids, who become teenagers, who ultimately leave (forever) and the parents who adore them to death. For most of my clients of all financial stripes, I coach for the long view – once children have come into the picture. They will not be little forever – so love them to death – but think about how your home will need to evolve with them, as their needs mature and soft blocks go the way of the dodo to make room for computers, etc. Space and pieces that are convertible, flexible and classic rein in this philosophy, as well as a rotating collection of accents and accessories that make the space feel fresh.

At the end of the day, baby spew and all – my son is the best possible design challenge I could hope for – and motherhood – sleep and time deprivation and all – is more rewarding that I could have dreamed. Motherhood has meant letting a lot of things go – but my personal style in my home isn’t one of those things. The landscape has changed, and no doubt will continue to change, as I sense I am on the eve of my son’s first steps and I sense his developing fascination for electrical outlets. Thank goodness for my clients with children of all ages – to tell me how it really is, how it really must be, and what they need to live and mother effectively and peacefully with children older than mine. So I have a sense of what’s coming – not only in motherhood – but in designing in motherhood. For me, there is a meditative quality to feeling surrounded by both the people and the things I love – and not necessarily putting it all away until my son develops my same appreciation for the flea market finds from my pre-child days. So the milky glass goes in the cupboard, and I surround my son, my dog, my husband and myself with pretty things that work for today, but may be shelved tomorrow.