These Contemporary Designs for Children Capture the Spirit of Curiosity and Invention

Did you know that the designs we engage with in our early years play a formative role in shaping our views on ways of living? New York design writer and editor Kimberlie Birks has demonstrated just that by collecting some 601 colour illustrations of the very best designs around for her new book, Design for Children, published by Phaidon.

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The survey features the most exciting and inspiring designs by the world’s most creative independent designers as well as Bauhaus and Scandinavian masters. Designs are categorised by functions – playing, eating, learning, riding, creating, sitting, and sleeping – but united in their ability to fold timeless aesthetics into a playground for the imagination. Containing everything from rocking horses to Palazzo della Civiltà-inspired stacking shelves, Design for Children makes well its case for embracing design as an important and accessible part of everyday life.

Ditzel high chair
Children’s High Chair, 1955
Designer: Nanna Ditzel (1923-2005) and Jørgen Ditzel (1921-61)
Made by: Kolds Savværk / currently Kitani

After more than half a century, the elegant lines of this iconic high chair, by the acclaimed pioneer Nanna Ditzel, stand up against anything the contemporary design world has to offer. Ditsel trained as a cabinetmaker before going on to study furniture design at the School of Arts and Crafts (now the Danish Design School) in Copenhagen, where she met her future husband and collaborator, Jørgen. Nanna and Jørgen’s partnership, in both business and life, was remarkably equal, with both parties contributing fully to their studio practice, as well as to housework and childcare. In 1955, the Ditzel’s introduced their High Chair with two primary designs: one version featured a wipeable vinyl seat and leather T-Strap; the second model, which was geared to older toddlers, was made of solid wood with no T-strap. An adjustable footrest allowed the chair to adapt to the needs of a growing child. The Ditzel’s golden-haired twin daughters appeared in the adverts for the High Chair, which received critical praise and remained popular in Danish households for many years after its release.


IO Bunk Pod, 2013
Designer: Mina Panic (1973-)
Made By: IO Kids Design
There is a touch of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in the award-winning IO Bunk Pod, created by Mina Panic for her company, IO Kids Design. Inspired by her daughter’s love of astronomy, Panic chose to name the bed (and her studio) after one of Jupiter’s ‘unpredictable, surprising, and ever-changing’ moons. This versatile design reflects that spirit; it can transform into two single beds, a combined bed and desk unit, or even separate bed and desk pieces. Its ability to evolve as a child grows makes it a sustainable piece of furniture that can adapt to the changing needs of the family. ‘I think that designing for kids can be really challenging,’ Panic explains, ‘because it’s a lot about creating things which are playful, interactive, joyful, and something that kids can grow up with.’ Drawing on the utility, clean lines and craftsmanship of Scandinavian design, IO Bunk Pod comprises a minimal number of parts, making it easy to assemble.


Series E chairs
Series E Classroom Chair, 1971
Designer: Robin Day (1915-2010)
Made By: 
Designed by Robin Day in 1963, the Polypropylene Chair has become so iconic that it once featured in a series of ‘British Design Classics’ stamps. Still in production today, it is currently the world’s best-selling school chair, with nearly 50 million units sold to date (according to the chair’s manufacturer, Hille). Charged with designing a low-cost, mass-produced, stacking chair that would meet virtually every seating requirement and be affordable to all, Day conceived the Polyprop, an injection-moulded design intended to make use of the then-new material polypropylene. The thermoplastic proved ideally suited for the task, as it was cheaper, lighter and more durable than plywood, or any form of plastic then available on the market. Attentive to every technical and ergonomic detail, Day’s chair was both visually sophisticated and structurally ingenious, making it a landmark of modern furniture design. Its success led the designer to release several variations, including the tots-to-teens Series E school chairs of 1971 (seen here), which came in five sizes and had a lifting hole in the back.


Caravan Crib
Caravan Crib, 2010
Designer: Johannes Pauwen (1976-) and Michaele Simmering (1978-)
Made By: Kalon Studios
The Caravan Crib refines the high-sided silhouette of the archetypal circus caravan, yet retains a sense of showmanship with its colourful lacquered rails. Most elements of the solid-wood crib, designed by husband-and-wife team Johannes Pauwen and Michaele Simmering of Kalon studios, are handcrafted using locally sourced maple wood. In keeping with the Los Angeles-based studio’s principle of local manufacturing, this means that cribs intended for European customers are made in Europe from European Maple, while pieces for American customers are made in New England using timber from sustainably managed local forests. The Caravan Crib features two mattress heights and can be converted to a child’s bed, and eventually a divan, thereby making it designed to last a lifetime. Pauwen and Simmering were inspired to start their studio following the arrival of their first child, having found it challenging to obtain children’s furniture that married design appeal with sustainable production practices.


Inflatable Animals
Inflatable Animals, 1969
Designer: Libuse Niklová (1934-81)
Made By: Fatra / currently Maammo
Libuse Niklová, one of the Czech Republic’s most important designers, created a range of extraordinary plastic toys that are still collected today. Believing that children should play as actively and creatively as possible, Niklová sought to design toys that appealed to all of the senses. The designer’s most lively creations were her inflatables, which included characters from a variety of cultures, animals, aeroplanes and astronauts, and ranged in size from small enough to hold in one hand to large enough to sit on. Conceived in the mid-1960s, the inflatable giraffe, horse, pig, caterpillar and elephant (among others) were intended for children to ride. Their flexible nature meant that the toys would begin to walk as a child moved. Cutting-edge in their use of rubber sheets and heat-welded joints, the collection became familiar fixtures in many Czech households. Originally produced for Fatra, Niklová’s animals are now made by Maammo.


Isetta Pedal Car
Isetta Pedal Car, 1957
Designer: Velam (est. 1953)
Made By: Velam
This unusual pedal car is based on the Isetta, the iconic but short-lived bubble car, which was born during the micro-car craze that swept Europe during the 1950s. The Isetta’s signature shape, bizarre but space-saving front entry door and single-seat occupancy made the vehicle instantly recognizable, and created its enduring design, which is still much-beloved by dedicated followers today. Originally designed in Italy by Iso, the Isetta was licensed to a number of companies across Europe, including BMW in Germany and Velam in France. Iso sold the body-making equipment to BMW prior to licensing the design, which encouraged Velam to create its own unique body shape in 1954. More pod-like than the original Isetta, the Velam version earned itself the nickname the ‘yoghurt pot.’ While this child-sized version lacks some of the original car’s most notable features, including the front entry door and small morot, it perfectly captures the ride’s quirk and distinctive form.


Schaukelwagen, 1950
Designer: Hans Brockhage (1925-2009) and Erwin Andra (1921-)
Made By: Gottfried Lenz / currently Werkform
Hans Brockhage and Erwin Andra designed this unusual ride-on toy while Brockhage was a student at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, where Andra worked as an academic assistant. As part of his studies, Brochage presented his teacher, the influential Dutch designed Mart Stam, with a design for a rocking horse. ‘When horse fall over, horse is dead,’ Stam is reported to have said in his best Dutch-German, challenging Brockhage and Andra to ‘make a horse that isn’t dead when it fall over.’ The result is a rocking horse that inverts to become a car. Its plywood seat supports both modes of riding, while a laddered beech frame arcs over the wheeled base, offering a series of rungs for climbing or pushing. Once a standard feature of East German kindergartens, the Schaukelwagen (Rocking Car) is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. In 2011, Werkform acquired the rights to its reproduction.


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Design for Children, published by Phaidon and written by Kimberlie Birks, is a comprehensive, genre-defining survey of children’s product and furniture design from Bauhaus to today.