making room for baby

Written by Lila Allen

Consider the choice between two cribs: One is a Vetro, a fully recyclable, limited-edition acrylic pen by Nursery Works that retails for $4,500—the same crib featured in North West’s nursery in Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The second option is the DaVinci Jenny Lind three-in-one convertible crib, on sale for $225. Its frame is turned wood, painted in a brilliant teal. The form is more familiar than that of the Vetro, deriving from a popular bed frame that first emerged in the nineteenth century and remains a flea-market staple today. As a new parent, which would you choose, and why?

Black-ish. © ABC

Black-ish. © ABC

Domestic spaces reflect financial realities and aspirations, and embody tastes, anxieties, whims, and trends. They reveal the cultural and economic forces that form the undercurrent of everyday life, surfacing in materials, products, and spatial configuration. What, then, are we to make of children’s rooms? In these spaces, parents are the gatekeepers and the purse-string holders. Children, with their limited agency, money, and autonomy, receive design rather than direct it. Countless choices go into crafting an environment—regarding the materials and patterns of textiles, the color of the walls, and the quality and nature of the toys, to start. Parents generate—or at least endorse—through their purchases the spaces and playthings shaping a child’s earliest habits and behaviors. Particularly as a child transitions from dependence to independence, consumables in his or her environment perform the gestures otherwise provided by parents—sustenance, comfort, and safety.

Black-ish. © ABC

Black-ish. © ABC

The American understanding of childhood has changed dramatically over the past two hundred years, and as this perception has changed, so, too, has the market catering to its needs. Design historian Amy Ogata explains, “As researchers, toy makers, and parenting experts encouraged the idea that a generation raised to think creatively could ensure American interests in the future, an innate creativity that could be fostered through consumables was projected onto a developing generation that promised, if only because of its sheer size, to renew the nation.” This ethos, Ogata points out, continues today. It is only through appropriate pedagogies, policies, and environments that children can realize their full potential, many adults believe. However, parents don’t live in isolation, and their choices emerge from the culture and attitudes of their time. Beginning during their own childhoods, parents see representations of family life in advertising, television, and print media—each embedding values and social norms. A viewer who looks closely enough, and understands the context surrounding the production of contemporary spaces, can mine some of this meaning.

The sitcom has long been an index of American values, fashions, and current events. Modern Family will almost certainly be remembered as an iconic sitcom of the early twenty-first century. The comedy focuses on three interconnected families living in the Los Angeles area and features a number of children’s bedroom sets. Each one, according to the show’s production designer Richard Berg, contains characterizing details of its associated child, as well as his or her parents. (This is especially true, of course, for infant characters, who have not generated or selected any aspects of their environment.) The nursery of Lily Tucker-Pritchett is particularly interesting as an overlap between the child’s room and the parents’ ideologies. Lily’s adoption from Vietnam by partners Cameron Tucker and Mitchell Pritchett was one of the show’s most prominent early story lines. Through this narrative, Modern Family grappled with the cultural and family politics of gay parenting during an epoch of evolving national discourse and legislation.

Modern Family .  © NBC

Modern Family. © NBC

Black-ish is currently one of the most popular new shows on network television. It follows the daily lives of the Johnsons, a prosperous black family in Los Angeles, and the show’s multigenerational cast of characters confronts issues of identity in popular culture and media. The room shared by the Johnsons’ eight-year-old twins, Jack and Diane, appears frequently on the show, and it provides a side-by-side comparison of a boy’s area and a girl’s space within the same room. Next to the nursery of Lily Tucker-Pritchett—an adopted Vietnamese child raised by white, gay, (slightly) less affluent parents—the Johnson kids’ bedroom offers a complementary view of Los Angeles living.

Black-ish. © ABC

Black-ish. © ABC

The environments in these shows materialize through a network of creators/producers, and fictional parents and children. Within this network, each group’s decisions are motivated by the perceived needs of the other’s. Producers, for example, directly shape scenes by way of creative direction, keeping in mind the desires of their audience. For a sitcom, the producer’s audience comprises the American television-watching public, who are emotionally invested in the show’s narrative. The child characters who inhabit these spaces lack agency, but their well-being within the living situation is the ultimate assumed interest of all parties involved.

Maxine Shepard, the production designer for Black-ish, says that considering the personalities within the Johnson family was an essential part of her design process. Before the show began filming, the developing script had already established the family’s status as high-income Los Angelenos. The mother and father hold lucrative jobs (she is an anesthesiologist and he an advertising executive). But when it came to the decor of their home, were they a family who would hire a professional, or choose to DIY?

Though the show presents Rainbow, the mother, as working long hours at the hospital, it also characterizes her as a high-performing homemaker. Shepard determined that Rainbow would have designed her children’s spaces herself, and treated the room of the youngest children, Jack and Diane, as a canvas where she could be creative, experimental, and expressive. The result is a lively, wacky pairing of competing patterns (florals, robots, geometric motifs, dots, and zigzags) and colors (electric yellows and pinks, cornflower blue, chartreuse, orange, and violet).

The abundance of toys and games in Jack and Diane’s room echoes the zaniness of the decor. Dre Johnson, the patriarch of the family and the father of the twins, is middle-aged and spent his formative years in Compton. The show frequently addresses Dre’s childhood, particularly the instability of his parents’ marriage and finances. As an affluent advertising executive, he offers his children the best that money can buy. Flashbacks to Dre’s childhood call attention to the clear dynamic between the character’s past and present. For Dre, providing (and sometimes overproviding) his children with toys and gifts is a method of expressing love, as well as his devotion as a parent, but it is also a signifier of how far he has come. Sometimes this giving is beyond the family’s means. One second-season episode focuses on Dre’s poor budgeting and his overspending on material goods for himself and his children. While Dre and Rainbow live lavishly, they are also aware of their modest beginnings, and to them, acts of designing and giving are demonstrations of affection—but they are also indications of social and economic mobility and access.

In Modern Family, Richard Berg’s design for Lily Tucker-Pritchett’s nursery radiates from the central point of a hand-painted mural against the left wall. The painting, which the designer based on God and Adam from Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, depicts the likenesses of Cam and Mitchell as two muscular, drapery-clad beings resting on clouds. Cam, characterized in the show as having a flair for the dramatic, commissioned the mural, much to the chagrin of his more conservative partner. To Tucker and Pritchett, Lily’s adoption from Vietnam is fraught not only with the stress of first-time parenthood, but also with the complexities of navigating family and cultural politics. After her arrival, Lily becomes the focus of the men’s lives—Cameron stays at home with the baby; the two fathers immerse themselves in play and care for the child. To Berg, there “wasn’t a better reference in art history” than the image of God and Adam to represent what Lily means to the couple. With the mural’s incorporation into the nursery, the two are always watching over their daughter.

The labor embedded in this custom painting should not be overlooked. Created on-site for the infant, the nursery mural is a gift from a parent to a child. It required hours of planning and execution, in addition to years of honing one’s craft as a painter (whether the work was outsourced to a professional artist or performed by a parent). It cannot be exchanged, returned, or sold—just covered up. It is an original without true means of reproduction, and is endowed with an aura of authenticity. Yet murals can also be disturbing, tacky, or plain weird, like the portraits of Cam and Mitchell hovering over Lily’s crib.

In her book Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America, design historian Amy Ogata pinpoints the practice of styling a room to foster a child’s sense of individuality and creativity as having emerged in postwar America. Functioning as an expression of American exceptionalism, Cold War anxiety, and the mythologizing of creativity, “the choice of furniture, pictures, rugs, and wallpaper in the child’s room was,” Ogata argues, “laden with the larger social responsibilities of cultivating imagination and individuality.” The motivation behind this kind of design for children is deeply embedded in the American consciousness, and its legacy continues today.

At the outset of Black-ish, for instance, eight-year-old twins Jack and Diane were old enough to have defined personalities—ones that Maxine Shepard needed to consider while planning their shared bedroom. While designing the room, she turned to Houzz and Pinterest, as well as her own childhood bedroom, for inspiration.

“When I was a child and I had to share a room with my sister, it was like, this is my half, and this is your half,” she says. “So when it came to the twins’ room, I wanted to have a color separation without it being as obvious as blue and pink: Is there any way to do two wallpapers that are separate enough but still cohesive? They had to match the character of each child, but also balance each other out.”

Black-ish. © ABC

Black-ish. © ABC

Indeed, Shepard deals with two different types of kids. Jack is mischievous but slightly dim-witted; Diane is conniving and highly intelligent. The room is divided down the middle by way of design, with each half outfitted in its own striking wallpaper and coverlet patterns and colors. Jack’s half features a palette of green-and-blue graphic prints, a robot motif, and symbols of athleticism and kitsch (a basketball net and a Magic 8-Ball, among other things); Diane’s section is covered in vibrant patterns, including bold floral prints, and filled with imaginative-play items. The twins’ furniture and props occur tit-for-tat: Both children have their own desk, their own play area, their own closet, and their own toy bin—suggesting equal attention from the parent-designer, but also reflecting the distinctions between them.

Diane’s strong characterization takes place over the course of the show’s three (so far) seasons, but when Shepard was first hired, Diane only existed on paper. In an interview, Shepard discussed the challenge of establishing the daughter’s identity via the design of the environment: “I always felt she was a strong little girl and not a girly princess. I wanted to show her as a vibrant little girl interested in things beyond just dolls. . . . We wanted to make sure there were books or magic tricks, things that involved the mind.” Emphasizing creative, brainy props for the more intellectual twin, Shepard’s set engages with the mentality identified by Ogata.

Details of Diane’s half of the bedroom exhibit Shepard’s efforts. The desk is scattered with various effects—a backpack from school, books, a container for craft supplies, and a task lamp. To the right of the desk, a telescope waits to be put to use, while at the left, a puppet theater offers her space for dramatic play. (On the show, an easel occasionally stands in the position of the puppet theater.) “I saw her as someone who was much more intellectual,” says Shepard. “Her personality and items would skew toward that—not just dress-up.” The twins’ bedroom in Black-ish isn’t only the place where they sleep; it is also their playroom. With tools for expression, imaginative development, and academic study, Diane’s area has been built for creative and productive childhood recreation that will help her discover and strengthen her scholarly abilities.

The twins’ large room is populated with an assortment of furniture: two wooden beds, two desks, Eames-style chairs, a table for two, and built-in shelving and cabinetry. While some storage areas are situated at low heights, others—such as the pink and white storage bins stashed above the twins’ closets—sit well out of a child’s reach, and are only accessible to them with an adult’s help, or by use of a ladder (which does not appear in the show). The implication, of course, is that an adult is available to the twins for assistance. With the exception of their reversible coverlets, in this room there is no opportunity—or at least no intentionally designed, nonimprovised opportunity—for Jack and Diane to act as the architects of their own space.

Modern Family and Black-ish present the intersection between contemporary culture, parents, children, and a designed environment. In both shows, space performs as a stabilizer for conflict elsewhere. For Mitch and Cam in Modern Family, the nursery is the result of a caring if overzealous effort to build a nest for the baby that society by and large told them they shouldn’t have. In Black-ish, Dre counters his low-income and precarious childhood with a cushy, stuffed-to-the-gills existence for his twins; Rainbow designs a room that channels her own ambitious drive, and that supports her aspiration of raising a similarly determined daughter. The room, in all cases, is an equalizer, and a retreat from the realities of the outside world.

Though superficial notions of parenthood may ebb and flow with the current of popular convention, parenting is perhaps the same as it has ever been: Mothers and fathers just want better for their children. Rooms for children are a material embodiment of parents’ hopes and fears, and can be havens of comfort and stability when these things may not exist elsewhere. The labor of installation and painting, the Sisyphean task of tidying—these are the efforts parents make to give order to a child’s world, and their own.