Now it's time for tot gear
Pushchairs have moved on since the days of bulky prams. Now, inspired by car technology, they're the most hi-tech items on the pavement. By Paul McKenzie
Monday 08 August 2011
Sian To wants you to take the works of Hilde Angelfoss, director of innovation and design at Stokke, very seriously indeed. There are testaments in cyberspace from mothers across Britain, "many thousands of them", she says. "The Stokke pushchair user is so devoted to the product that they'll say things like, 'using a Stokke pushchair has made my child's transport experience so pleasurable I'm thinking of having another baby.'"
But that isn't the most extravagant claim from the Stokke representative. It's the next one: "Buying a Stokke pushchair is like buying Porsche. People like luxury. They want a product that is beautiful and not pink and ugly." I have to pinch my arm to remind myself that we are talking about a pushchair. A nice-looking one, admittedly. And one that has won a number of awards. But ultimately, we are talking about a vehicle that transports a child from A to B.
"Ah, but there's where you're going wrong," Sian informs me, "a pushchair, especially a luxury pushchair, is much more than that." Over the next hour I am told about rocking functions, adaptable handles, side-impact bars, added ventilation and sustainability. And safety. Meeting and exceeding standards is something Stokke take "very, very seriously".
And it comes as no surprise that the Stokke pushchair also has a very, very serious price. Coming in at £829, the Stokke Xplory is one of the most expensive pushchairs in the stroller market. But it seems this exorbitant price is no deterrent to would-be mothers, because the Xplory happens to be one of the most popular models, helping the Norwegian company generate €69 million (£59.7m) in sales.
The pushchair market is worth £225m in Britain, 30 per cent of all money spent on baby and nursery equipment. Sales of buggies at John Lewis were up by 11 per cent over the last year, with aspirational brands such as Silver Cross and Bugaboo leading the way. In fact, sales of buggies costing more than £500 leapt by more than 40 per cent, which in turn has led to a spate of buggy robberies over the past six months – fuelling a black market that some insurance companies claim is worth £60m.
In the US, buggy thefts are such a part of modern life that one New York mother, having had two stolen from her garden, has created a special lock called the Buggy Guard. Annette Mendoza Atteridge's invention is now available across America, although not yet on this side of the Atlantic.
Today's buggies and prams are exquisite, streamlined, lightweight affairs. The latest addition to the Beckham brood, Harper Seven, has reportedly already been given her first freebie in the form of a custom-built buggy worth £800 from iCandy. Buggies are no longer made just with mothers and babies in mind, but with other primary carers, grandparents and, perhaps most importantly, fathers. Designers of today's buggies and prams aren't just busy talking to child development specialists and paediatricians – who advise on which way a seat should face, correct height and sleeping angles – they're also to be found at the world's busiest car and bike shows, checking out the latest design in seat covers, aerodynamic forms and alloy wheels.
Sarah Boyle is head of product development at Mothercare. The store may be having a tough time of it on the high street, announcing this spring that it is closing 110 of its stores, but when it comes to pushchairs, Mothercare is still a major player. Having recently returned from exhibitions in Shanghai and Milan, Boyle has more than 1,400 disparate pictures of furniture, cars, bikes, packaging and clothing on her iPod. Looking for solutions for the perfect pushchair keeps her awake at night.
"My mind is always whirring, trying to find answers for the key factors: weight, storage, easy manoeuvrability, size and value for money," Boyle says.
Her eyes are dancing as she explains the challenges for each area. Of the concerns she mentions, two keep cropping up when I speak to mothers on the shop floor. Storage is paramount – "mothers tend to overdo it on the bag, blanket and shopping front," they tell me – as is getting around busy streets. And it's these two points that inspired Mothercare's current bestseller, the swivel-wheeled, lightweight Urbanite.
Paul Walker, design manager, says the Urbanite was inspired by the latest in bike design, using the lightest tubing to ensure the pram is smooth and easy to handle. But at Mothercare, considered the Volvo of the pushchair world, safety and comfort remain paramount. "Style is an add-on, something we take into account after the rigours of safety," says Walker.
To prove it, I'm shown footage of the pushchair being tested at the company's factory in Shanghai. On test routes, prams and buggies are slammed into false kerbs, brakes are tested 7,000 times, the pushchair is opened and closed up 5,000 times, and prams are overturned to ensure that the harness holds under duress.
As in all fields of transport, designers are always looking to innovate. Laura Slattery, the creative force behind the My Child buggies, believes that technology in the pushchair world is only just getting started. The influence of cutting-edge materials for outdoor clothing is now being seen in accessories such as hoods and visors. Slattery predicts that prams with cameras, iPod speakers, thermometers and smog filters are not far away. But she worries that such features may only serve to fuel the paranoia of middle-class parents while giving high-end stroller brands another reason to charge even more for their pushchairs.
If the sky's the limit when it comes to price, what about features? I ask Slattery just how far we are away from a pushchair with wings. "Maybe not wings. A jet pack perhaps..." She's joking, but having spent three days in the boundary-pushing world of pushchairs, I'm not quite sure.
In reverse – when car designs go off-road
Patrik Palovaara used his knowledge of design as a senior designer for Volvo trucks in Gothenburg to launch Pansar Sweden, a new watch brand. He claims he was always interested in problem-solving, which led him to create and improve things through design. While the world of watches seems very far removed from automobiles, Palovaara insists they're not that different. "I'm intrigued by watches because they possess so many different properties and qualities," he says. "These elements are shared in car design, where proportion, fit and finish, and the execution of detail, are foremost."
As fuel prices continue to soar and more people want to make green choices, the popularity of bikes continues to rise. Until recently, you had to have a pretty good sense of direction to get in the saddle, but now enterprising types have adapted the car Sat Nav and GPS systems for bicycles. Leading the charge is the Garmin Edge 705, which comes with a base map, microSD slot and street-level maps as well as featuring a speed sensor and heart-rate monitor. It offers a colour display and measures speed, time, distance, altitude, calories burnt and descent, making it a must-have for those who like to take the road less travelled.
A fancy cup holder for your Starbucks or Coke is always a handy accessory in the car (if not exactly a must-have) and now they have been embraced on all sorts of other modes of transport. Motorcyclists can now enjoy a beverage on the move, thanks to a range of drink holders available for bikes, which borrow the design of those fitted in cars. Comprised of patented brackets and faceted rings constructed of machined aluminium, they can cost up to £50. Similarly, cup holders can also be purchased for prams for busy mothers on the run.
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