Million Dollar Babies

When former investment banker Isabel Kallman set out to relaunch her self-funded parenting site, Alphamom.com, as a revenue-generating blockbuster, she knew she needed to speak directly to her readers’ leader-of-the-mommy-pack sensibility. These better-educated, higher-income new moms “run to Google instead of Grandma,” says Kallman, “but they also have a fierce need to share what they learn with other mothers.” She moved her headquarters into the offices of the branding consultancy Fahrenheit 212, which bought a 33 percent stake in the enterprise and redesigned the site. The new look, which debuts in September, is delicately calibrated to communicate two qualities: warmth and intelligence.

In the rectangular panels for the logo and headers, for example, the designers left two angles with hard right edges and rounded the corners of the other two, creating “a real physical manifestation of warm intelligence,” says F212 head designer Jared Richardson. The logo’s raspberry color is 50 percent yellow (warm) and 100 percent red (intelligent). “We were always walking this tightrope between tight and clean but still having looseness and warmth,” he says. “That was the sweet spot for us.”

Such detailed attention to aesthetics sits well with today’s design-savvy parents, a generation that has started families during the rise of HGTV and Design*Sponge. More broadly, these opposing poles of “warmth” and “intelligence” reflect shifts in the baby design industry for the past five years.

Heading up one of the largest baby booms since 1964, so-called Generation Y parents—joined by younger members of Generation X—are not only having more babies but also generating an enormous desire to pamper them in posh. This trend has already been codified: Yoga Moms (who don’t necessarily do yoga) push well-heeled tots in $900 strollers and surround them with $1,690 cribs by David Netto, sippy cups by Philippe Starck, and $425 diaper bags by Kate Spade, some of which may be sold in “curated” stores, and with ads often devoid of actual babies.

 

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Screenshot from the redesigned Alphamom.com, by Fahrenheit 212.

 
Last year, U.S. consumers spent more than $9.8 billion on infant, toddler, and pre-school furnishings and accessories, according to a May 2008 study by the research group Packaged Facts. Luxe cribs, haute couture high chairs, and fancy changing tables aren’t merely for the upper crust, either. “Practically this entire market has gone premium,” says senior analyst Timothy Dowd, the study’s author.

This non-infantalizing infant aesthetic is usually called Modern Baby design: The names of distributors—All Modern Baby, Modern Nursery, Modern Tots, Modern Mini—stoke the mad hope that you can contain your kid’s id with the clean lines and flat surfaces of Modernity itself.

As the movement’s name implies, it’s clean, crisp, and minimal, featuring lots of geometric shapes and sans-serif fonts. Though the Modernism conceit may be dusty, the word shines with market value. Retailers are handing parents a design buzzword that means little more than “contemporary”—that this is not your mother’s baby furniture. “There’s not a lot of intellectual rigor in what constitutes ‘Modern Baby’ design,” says Greg Allen, who writes Daddy Types, a blog about his search for well-designed baby gear. “It’s what people latch onto in order to be ‘of the moment.’ ” Designer baby goods haven’t always had this contemporary twist. “It’s always been possible to spend a lot of money on baby stuff,” says Allen. “But, before, it meant you bought a hand-carved crib that looked like a Cinderella crib.”

American parents and high-end baby design really started connecting around 2003, when David Netto released a white lacquered crib called Moderne, and a number of stores, online and off, followed suit. Like Allen, Daniel Kron, a former fashion photographer, began looking for well-designed kids’ accessories when he became a new father. “I realized that there were people out there like me who were having babies and were never going to buy into the Babies ‘R’ Us shopping mentality,” he says. Bugaboo strollers, like Netto’s crib, became available in the U.S. in 2003. (A year earlier, Sex and the City’s Miranda pushed her child in a snazzy, $899 Bugaboo, and suddenly, $300 for a stroller became the new $24.99.) Kron opened Genius Jones in South Beach, Miami, in 2003. He’s planning a third store and is making $3 million a year, up from less than $700,000 three years ago.

 

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Wall coverings and accessories from DwellStudio for Target.

The booster seat for this trend is parents’ struggle to stay as cool as they were in their child-free years. Because they are having babies later, their tastes are more entrenched. “So instead of having their baby dictate their aesthetic, they’re incorporating the baby into their existing design sensibility,” says Pamela Paul, author of the 2008 book Parenting Inc., which investigates the booming baby-products market.

BabyMod, then, is an adult aesthetic that favors color schemes like brown and baby-blue or brown and orange, Paul says. “Orange especially is a ‘Fuck you’ to decades of baby-blue and baby-pink hegemony. It’s a way of saying, ‘We’re having children, but we’re still us.’ ” The impulse, she says, is “to try to stave off the inevitable takeover by a kiddie culture of Elmo backpacks and Pokémon T-shirts.”

Yoga Moms—those particularly eco-conscious mothers who eschew commercial, licensed products—are leading the trend toward such trickle-down, high-end tastes, according to Dowd. They “want their child outfitted in a way that reflects and displays their own uniqueness.” He adds, “This seems pretty rarefied, but if you
see Yoga Moms on TV or in ads”—or on CelebrityBabies.com, which links directly to products worn by Suri Cruise or a Jolie-Pitt—“you might want to imitate this mentality.” In the meantime, Target has extended its “design for all” creed to the nursery with DwellStudio’s $79 bedding sets and $300 cribs.

 

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Spring/Summer 2008 cover of Kid’s Wear.

There are elements of classic Modernism in all this, to be sure: Mutsy, a Dutch purveyor of “baby mobility” (i.e., strollers), uses Bauhaus type in its logo; online retailer Sparkability sells a Bauhaus dollhouse for $690. The product shots for bedding maker Boodalee pairs its geometric-patterned sheets with Eames chairs in the background. Like many baby-furniture makers, the New York–based Oeuf is commendably green in its practices, but its in-store catalog is all beige, gray, and white.

Some of the DIY design trends of the past few years, however—the kind found
on Design*Sponge, Etsy, and similar sites—are warming up these modern baby venues. Line and vector art, silk-screened illustrations of animals and birds, and info-graphics are being downsized for onesies instead of T-shirts, for baby bibs instead of bag patches.

Color is the quickest way to doll up the original version of Modernism. The homepage of Nurseryworks (also launched in 2003) displays a wood-paneled background with touches of lime green and hot pink; an orange kite lists the sections. Giggle, with stores on both coasts, brands itself with a clutch of multicolored stripes, and strollers like Bugaboo, Mutsy, and Quinny are a garden of delectable hues.

Serif fonts, meanwhile, are about as welcome in modern baby design as thumbtacks in a bassinet. And some sans serifs are warmer than others, says F212 designer Richardson. For the Alpha Mom logo, he used the Gill-inspired typeface DTL Casperi. “If Helvetica is the classic neutral,” he says, “Gill tends to be more human.” At the same time, Kallman’s handwriting is all over the place—for the “Am” of the logo, for section heads, and in a personal message on “notebook paper.” Boodalee also squiggles out headers in handwritten type. On the store’s site, Jeanice Skvaril, Boodalee’s owner, explains why she’s not totally mod: “I wanted alternatives to the mainstream commercial mediocrity offered by big retailers. At the same time, I didn’t want to subject [my son] to my own minimalist preferences.”

 

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A card from retailer Giggle.

The logo for Stokke (rhymes with polka) is set in ITC Kabel, a version of the 1920s German typeface based on geometric character shapes. Set in white-on-orange, it looks both modern and “Moderne.” In fact, the Norwegian company has done the most to literally round BabyMod’s corners with its oval crib; the smooth, tubular frame of the Stokke stroller looks like nothing so much as Helvetica on wheels.

There’s one small detail sometimes missing from all this: babies. Gitte Robeyns, Mutsy’s in-house designer, is responsible for everything from the logo and catalogs to the flashy website and the strollers themselves, and she doesn’t put babies in any of it. “We almost never show babies in the stroller, because we want the woman to look very independent and modern, not like a mother type,” she says. “We want to make the product a bit more central to the picture.” In the catalog and in an online video, empty strollers and a young model appear in full color against fast-moving black-and-white urban scenes. The model, says Robeyns, “is sweet, but lost, like she’s living in her own world,” and was inspired by Audrey Tautou’s character in the 2001 movie Amélie.

The urge to streamline is understandable; as parents, we want to feel smart, and
in control. But at its worst, BabyMod can be sterile. (The clinical-sounding magazine Offspring flopped, for example, while the warm-out-of-the-oven Cookie is a bona fide hit.) And as a sales tool, it can be humorless: The Morgan “Bonding Bench”—a simple, cushioned platform—is DucDuc’s $1,695 answer to the lap.

Many of us, on occasion, wish we could design the kid out of the picture. But in real life, children are not so willing to make way for us—or our aesthetics. Place an Oeuf bouncy seat in subdued blue and brown next to a gaudy Fisher-Price, Pamela Paul says, “and 10 out of 10 kids make a beeline to the Fisher-Price. Kids like loud.”

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