INTERIORS / Take that, Postman Pat: Children's rooms don't have to be a case of My Little Pony meets Jurassic Park. They can have style, writes Dinah Hall

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS a question that design journalists carry in reserve for awkward moments in interviews with verbally constipated interior decorators. 'What was your bedroom like as a child?' we ask, always hopeful that this foray into the realms of decorative psychoanalysis will have a cathartic effect and release a torrent of formative influences which will suddenly make their choice of wallpaper incredibly interesting.

The answer is invariably disappointing. Surprisingly few adults have any potent memories of their childhood bedrooms, though most can remember the destructive creativity of teenage decoration - plastering the parental wallpaper with pictures of the Rolling Stones and Che Guevara.

Thirty years ago children's bedrooms, as a rule, did not look so very different from adults' rooms: in terms of furniture they were like spare rooms, except for the badges of ownership - the teddy bears and dolls. Meryl Lakin, a book designer, recently found an essay her husband had written about his room as an 11-year-old in 1968. It is a meticulous and entirely unembarrassed description of wedgewood blue paintwork, fir tree-covered wallpaper and - the piece de resistance - a dressing table with a blue fluffy stool. 'My dressing table is darkly varnished,' he wrote 'and on it are my model aeroplanes.'

Can you imagine, asks Meryl, any child of 11 putting up with a dressing table in 1993? 'I mean, today you're nowhere if you don't have a computer, colour television and CD player in your bedroom,' she says. But then, of course, she remembers: 'We didn't spend time in our bedrooms because they weren't heated. You did your homework on the dining room table. I sometimes think that we were the last generation of real children; we still wore white knee socks at the age of 12.'

By contrast, today's Lycra-legginged children's bedrooms appear to reflect a huge growth in childhood consumerism. There are child-size wardrobes, extravagant beds, miniature sofas in this season's jewel-bright colours . . . everything stylish parents could wish to inflict on their precious little ones. Because one thing's for sure: it is not six-year-old Georgia who stamps her foot in Conran and insists that she must have that lipstick-pink Chesterfield. Decoration of children's bedrooms is still planned by parents, but it is supposed to look like it was chosen by the children. Possibly, in the past, parents were not so worried by the loss of childhood and did not need to reinforce it quite so neurotically, as we do today, with child-size furniture and pictorial wallpaper.

There is one very obvious reason why most under-12s are not given free rein on the design side. Children are born with unerringly bad taste: given the choice between a dignified old teddy bear and a really unpleasant pink and yellow thing with matted nylon fur and large plastic eyes at the WI Christmas bazaar, they will, without question, form a passionate and mercilessly long-lasting attachment to the Thing.

Fiona Cowan, photographers' agent and mother of four, is under no illusion that had a My Little Pony or Thunderbirds theme been on offer for her children's rooms they would have taken it. So for Tom, six, and Freddie, five, choice was restricted to Robin Hood or Cowboys and Indians, but it came with their own designer - Dot (Designs On Textiles - see panel on page 71). 'We guided them towards certain things,' says Fiona, 'but they had many more meetings with Dot than I did. It was their idea to have the beds in a wigwam and a prison.' As clients they shaped up pretty well - 'It may seem strange to have meetings with what were then a four- and a five-year-old, but they were very productive,' says the eponymous Dot. 'We sat down for a couple of hours and did quite a lot of drawings. Both boys knew just what they wanted: Tom was very precise - I think he will probably end up as prime minister.'

Violet, two, and Ruby, 14 months, obviously had less of a say in their room, where the Alice in Wonderland theme, though apparently dominant, plays second fiddle to the Violet and Ruby show. Behind the billowing crushed velvet curtains edged in hand-painted silk are roller blinds, again with silk hand- painted trim, one with a violet heart, one with a ruby one. The hat boxes, concealing plastic toys and covered in satin with padded silk bows, are similarly colour-coordinated, as are the hand-painted sheets and duvet covers. This is, in fact, all very practical - everything is machine washable.

Fiona Cowan is well aware that it is probably a bit excessive to insist on real suede cowboy waistcoats for the dressing-up box, and that her excuse that the children's environment will encourage them to be creative is a little thin - bare walls and a box of felt tips would be more likely to do that. But hers is only a slightly extreme manifestation of a common syndrome: nest building.

'Children are very susceptible to their environment,' asserted the Heals nursery catalogue of 1914, 'therefore, how important it is to surround them with things at once beautiful and useful. Place a child in the midst of bright and happy things and you go a long way towards making him happy and good-tempered.' Whether this is natural, or market-led, is open to question. Those who hold that nature intended us to to sleep with our babies believe that nursery equipment distances us from natural mothering instincts. As Deborah Jackson, a fervent advocate of co-sleeping, says in her book Three in a Bed: why you should sleep with your baby (Bloomsbury pounds 5.99 paperback, pounds 12.95 hardback): 'We are encouraged to picture our babies lying in their own rooms at night, surrounded by fluffy bunnies and pastel-coloured alphabets. To deny this image is to destroy the whole vision of motherhood for many women.'

In a curious way we have come to invest some of the feelings we have for children in the objects that are asssociated with them. The working mother does not buy irresistible outfits and knick-knacks for the children's room in her lunch hour just because she has the money to do so, nor purely out of guilt for the lack of time she spends with them. It may not be particularly healthy, but these things represent the child, and they must fit in with the image the parent has of childhood. (This is as good an excuse as any for refusing to buy your son Jurassic Park trousers from Marks & Spencer - 'I'm sorry, darling, but I love you too much to buy you anything that ugly.')

David Bentheim, an interior designer and doting father of four-year-old Amadea, was planning to have a baby-carrier made up in chintz while his daughter was still in the womb. He says: 'It is rather galling when you have this beautiful baby that you love more than anything else in the world and find that there are only ugly objects to choose from.' Nevertheless he found his judgement softening under the influence of paternal hormones. Somebody gave Amadea one of those Sloaney little chairs with her name painted on the back, an idea which in theory repels him - 'But somehow any bit of furniture that becomes particular to your child . . . I have to admit I love it.'

Robert and Josyane Young have a choice of children's chairs for six-year-old Sam and four-year-old Yannick to sit on - but nothing dating much beyond the 18th century. The Youngs are dealers in folk art and country furniture and Sam's bedroom is no different in style from the rest of their London terraced house. Some people think they are mad to let children loose among valuable antiques, but Josyane believes they have to learn respect for good things. 'I hope it will give them an eye for quality - whether it is something old, or plastic.' Having been brought up herself in France with a bedroom full of antiques which she was not allowed to touch, she rejects any suggestion of their room being like a museum. Toys, she believes, must have a purpose - whether they are Playmobil or a Noah's Ark that would fetch a good price in a chic antiques shop. Even the architectural storage cupboards which Robert made for Sam, she points out, have blackboard windows for the boys to write on. 'It's just that we haven't actually told them that yet.'

But the last word must rest with the child. Does Sam like his wonderful 18th-century Scandinavian painted bed? 'Yes,' he says after some thought, 'but it would be nice to have a bunk bed on top.' -

DIRECTORY

DESIGNERS

Heir Loom Windsor Design, 3-5 Lon- Fach Rhiwbina, Cardiff CF4 6DY. Tel: 0222 522440. House wardrobes, castle cupboards, half-tester beds and complete room designs.

Mark Wilkinson Furniture, Overton House, High Street, Bromham, Chippenham, Wiltshire SN15 2HA. Tel: 0380 850004. Custom-designed bedrooms and the Goldilocks range of hand-crafted ash furniture.

Dot Productions. Tel: 071-739 0128. (Shop opening in Bethnal Green in February.) From whole rooms to fabric designs to commission. Not specifically a children's designer, but has a vivid style which lends well to modern kids' rooms.

Dragons, 23 Walton Street, London SW3 2HX. Tel: 071-589 3795. Hand-painted furniture, four-poster cots and Beatrix Potter with everything. They also do the ante-natal equivalent of the wedding list.

FABRICS

Designers Guild, 271 & 277 King's Road, London SW3 5EN. Tel: 071-243 7300. Fabric collection for older children in bright colours; also nursery collection in softer blues and pinks.

The Nursery Window, 83 Walton Street, London SW3 2HP. Tel: 071-581 3358. Wallpapers and fabrics for the child whose taste runs to something rather more sophisticated than Postman Pat.

FURNITURE & ACCESSORIES

Ikea, Brent Park, Croydon, Gateshead, Warrington and Birmingham. Swedish modern design tends to be less self-conscious than English - and cheaper. Best buys are their navy blue cot, inoffensive wooden high chairs, bed linen and earnest plain wooden bricks.

A'fos Design, North Terrace, Bowness- on-Windermere, Cumbria LA23 3AW. Tel: 05394 47134. Four-poster oak cot which can be upholstered in your choice of fabric.

Kantara, Francis Suttill, Bishopswood Leigh, Ross-on-Wye, Hereford HR9 5QX. Tel: 0594 860328. Self-assembly biplane bookshelves.

Willie Winkle, Wilkes & Weaver, Offa Street, Hereford HR1 2LH. Tel: 0432 268018. Lambs' wool cot mattresses.

Bundles Nursery Interiors, 222 Century Buildings, Brunswick Dock, Liverpool L3 4BJ. Tel: 051-709 5595. Fabrics and wallpapers with matching painted furniture and accessories.

The Bed-Side-Bed Company, 98 Woodlands Avenue, Wanstead, London E11 3QY. Tel: 081-989 8683. A three sided cot which fixes to the bed, makes sleeping with your baby a practical idea. Solidly made from beech, it costs pounds 250 (plus pounds 16.50 delivery) with a free cot conversion kit for transforming it into a traditional cot later on.

The Conran Shop, Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RD. Tel: 071-589 7401. If you are serious about not dropping your design-credibility with parenthood, Conran does a beautiful modern cot which looks like it was designed by an architect - a childless one, presumably, as the side does not drop. Plus a range of wooden toys that won't clash with the decor.

Simon Horn Furniture, 117-121 Wandsworth Bridge Road, London SW6 2TP. Tel: 071-731 1279. How could your baby possibly not grow into a thoroughly stylish human being if it started its days in the Simon Horn cot? It converts to a bed and then, when its inmate has outgrown it, retires to daytime duty as a small sofa. In Californian cherrywood, it costs pounds 980.

Robert Young Antiques, 68 Battersea Bridge Road, London SW11 3AG. Tel: 071-228 7847. Antique children's furniture is quite rare but they do occasionally have some good pieces - children's Windsor chairs, stools, desks etc.

The Original Very Small Furniture Company, Windsor House, 22 Vicarage Place, Walsall WS1 3NA. Tel: 0543 376763. Mini leather button-back armchairs. Chesterfields plus a Queen Anne- style artist's chair with drawer underneath for painting equipment.

(Photographs omitted)

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