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How to Design Children's Rooms

Picking Furniture for Children's Rooms

You want your child's new room to look fresh and current, even if the furniture you're using isn't all brand-new. Luckily, what really distinguishes an okay room from a wonderful room is consistency, functionality, and personality. These qualities don't require a huge budget, but they do call for some planning.

Consistency just means you come up with a color scheme and a visual theme and maintain them throughout the room. For example, if you start out with blue, peach, plaids, and seashells, don't throw in (or neglect to remove) items that feature pink, black, florals, and zebras. The smaller the room, the more important consistency will be in preventing a cluttered look. You're not trying to be rigid here; you're trying to create a bit of underlying visual order that will stand up to the multitude of everyday kid items that will soon be scattered around.

How to Design Children's Rooms
A color scheme of red, purple, and blue makes a strong
yet harmonious statement in this mostly white room.
Designer: Maria Myers. Manufacturer: Chic Shack.

Unless you're starting from scratch, the first and often toughest part of a decorating job may be editing -- that is, removing pieces from the room that don't support the new vision. Of course, there are a couple of important exceptions.

If an accessory is meaningful to your child, do your best to find a place for it in the new room scheme. Sometimes just grouping a treasured white elephant with other accessories will keep it visible but not annoyingly prominent. Kids' toys are so varied in style and color, just about anything can work in the mix.

Functionality is a simple concept: Does every piece in the room serve an essential need? A comfortable place to sleep, a convenient place to play, an accessible place to store toys and clothing, and a workable place to study or indulge in hobbies are the basics. Once you've found them, it's time to inject the magic ingredient of personality.

Suppose you've inherited a piece of furniture that is safely designed, well-made, and basic to a bedroom, but cosmetically, it doesn't appeal to you or your youngster. Obviously, you could start shopping around for something new, but you could also consider refinishing the piece to work better with your new room scheme. Custom finishing can not only enhance the visual consistency you're seeking, but it is also one of the best ways to add the pizzazz of personality to a particular furniture piece.

You can unite a whole houseful of unmatched hand-me-downs in a charming way by painting or finishing them the same. (If you want a few pieces to be different, keep in mind that, in general, a smaller, more delicately scaled piece, such as a rocking chair, looks less oppressive in a dark wood finish than a chest of drawers or another massive piece does. A big piece takes up less space visually if it's finished in a light, cool color.)

If you are missing some key pieces or would like to start fresh with pieces you can customize, consider ready-to-finish (often called "unfinished") furniture. Many ready-to-finish furniture specialty stores offer solid hardwood furniture you can finish (or have the store finish) for a custom look. Most also offer specialty pieces for children.

If you have your heart set on heirlooms but didn't inherit any, antique shops can yield wonderful beds as well as dressers, armoires, rocking chairs, and toy chests. Porcelain doll dishes, wood rocking horses, and other quality toys are also available. Resale shops and flea markets also can be worthwhile sources, but you'll have to sift through finds more carefully to discover the good stuff.

If you're starting out with family hand-me-downs, resale shop finds, or unfinished pieces, edit until you're left with only those that offer good function and durable construction. If your budget is more flexible, head for one of the better conventional (factory-finished) furniture stores. These stores offer a full range of juvenile furniture pieces that conform to the latest safety regulations as well as offer furnishings your child won't outgrow.

Whether you are shopping in a furniture store or in Grandma's attic, be sure to check for quality construction. If you want to invest in pieces your child can enjoy now and hand down as family heirlooms later, hardwood pieces with doweled (not just stapled and glued) construction are a solid bet. Look inside drawers to see if the fronts are held on with dovetails. Lean or pull gently on a piece to see if it's sturdy and stable, not shaky. (If you're shopping online you can't do this last test, but you can check for furniture descriptions that mention "doweled" or "dovetail" construction. Don't settle for less.)

Heirloom-quality furniture may be crafted of solid hardwood or made of hardwood that is veneered with another, usually costlier, hardwood. Don't be afraid of veneers in general; just be sure they are securely applied to hardwood underneath. Used since early times, veneering makes using luxurious woods more affordable. Both solid wood and wood veneers on hardwood offer the kind of quality that lasts.

Your retailer can explain quality construction methods that also further the useful life of furniture. Be sure to ask about extra safety measures in the case of bunk beds (ladders, safety rails, etc.), cribs (distance between bars), and toy chests (safety hinges).

Wherever you shop, be very careful to check each piece thoroughly to make sure it's safe for your child. In general, plan to retrofit any vintage cribs with additional bars; check metal pieces for sharp edges; stay away from old stuffed animals, mattresses, and other fabric items that cannot be thoroughly washed; and steer clear of items with small detachable pieces that pose a choking hazard for kids under age five.

To protect against the hazards of old flaking lead paint (illegal since 1978), be sure to wear a safety mask and gloves, and follow safety recommendations for removing paint. (Basically, remove it with appropriate solvent; don't try to sand it off, and don't even be around the project if you're pregnant.) If it's a valuable antique and you like the look of the original finish, find out whether you can have a clear urethane sealant applied without lowering the value. If not, keep the real antiques for adult rooms, and explore quality reproductions for kids.

Furniture never grows old. It just takes on a whole new purpose. Learn to put existing furniture back to work in your child's room in the next section.

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