Design and Shopping: Ply and the family home

You're never too young to appreciate good design - so why not start by kitting out the nursery? By Lesley Jackson
I'm depressed by seeing children's rooms crammed with violently- coloured vulgar plastic toys," says furniture designer Robin Day. "I think this kills sensitivity and inventive improvisation." Day - the creator of the legendary Polyprop chair back in 1963, still widely used in UK schools, and now back on sale in Habitat - is one of 12 top designers who have responded to an initiative called Childsply, intended to raise money for The Children's Hope Foundation. Through the agency of the Islington gallery, twentytwentyone, the creme de la creme of the country's designers were issued with a challenge to create a piece of children's furniture from a single sheet of birch-faced plywood. The results, manufactured by Windmill Furniture who produce the Isokon range, are now on show at twentytwentyone as a satellite event coinciding with 100% Design.

As well as being a wholeheartedly worthy enterprise from a philanthropic point of view, Childsply provides an invaluable opportunity for style- gazers to survey in microcosm the buzzing British contemporary furniture scene. Matthew Hilton, Nick Crosbie, JAM, the Azumis, and the three Michaels (Sodeau, Young, and Jerwood Prize-winner Michael Marriott) have all taken up the gauntlet, and it's fascinating to see how differently each one has interpreted the intentionally tight design brief. For Robin Day the most important criteria were economy and simplicity, whereas for younger designers such as Michael Marriott and Matthew Hilton, play, imagination, dreams and creative stimulation were the primary motivating factors. For JAM, multi-functionality was important, while for Shin and Tomoko Azumi, their aim was to encourage a sense of personal attachment and ownership.

Hilton's solution is a combined chair-bench-den-climbing frame all rolled into one: a maze-like playpen full of holes, resembling a lump of Swiss cheese. Although Hilton doesn't have any children of his own, he has regular contact with his nine nieces and nephews, and in evolving this design he says he tried to remember what it was like to be a child. JAM's design, which combines storage with play, is also constructed from a series of flat planes, although in their case without the jolly portholes and with an overtly constructivist aesthetic. In fact it's more like a piece of sculpture than a piece of furniture. "Watching children reinvigorates that carefree feeling of exploration," observes JAM's designer, Lee Kew- Moss.

Ever since the pioneering bent plywood designs of Alvar Aalto and Charles Eames, plywood has been associated with curvilinear forms. Robin Day, who was responsible for some of the most innovative bent plywood chairs of the early post-war period, has created what is probably the most practical of all the Childsply designs: a chair with a curved seat, supported on a robust frame which slots neatly together. In fact, so economical is his design that two chairs can be produced from a single sheet of ply, reflecting the ingenuity of an earlier, less affluent generation.

Of his childhood Day recalls: "My mother made our clothes, and father made things for the house. I must have realised early on that everything in the home had to be thought out and made."

Michael Young's chair, by contrast, uses a more elaborate method of construction. The result is a miniaturised version of what he might create for his more sophisticated grown-up clientele, which is not necessarily a criticism because, as Robin Day observes, "children are interested in adult artifacts".

Sebastian Bergne's locker-cum-shoebox and James Irvine's box bench are similarly adult-centred, catering to the aspirations of parents who want to clear their children's clutter away. Michael Marriott, on the other hand, has happily regressed to his childhood, creating a tiered seating unit with visual echoes of tractors and trains. The most intriguing design of the bunch comes from the intelligent Azumis. It's a portable table- cum-work bench, neatly packed inside its own carrying case. The Azumis have really hit the nail on the head with this design, if I can be forgiven the awful pun, because here is a device which will fascinate and educate children at the same time. "When I was young, I liked to make models of a Ninja House which had lots of tricks inside," recalls Tomoko. "Hidden rooms, disappearing staircases, turning walls. I still love these kind of tricks."

If you want to buy something really memorable for your child, now's your chance. All 12 items created for Childsply will be auctioned over the next few days to raise money for The Children's Hope Foundation.

Childsply is at twentytwentyone, 274 Upper Street, London, N1 until 2 October. Tel 0171-288 1996