SVA MA Design Research

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Making Room for Baby: Navigating Children’s Domestic Environments in Contemporary America – SVA MA Design Research

Lila Allen

Making Room for Baby: Navigating Children’s Domestic Environments in Contemporary America

Part of Vital Signs

Image: The Land of Nod, landofnod.com

The rooms we live in are sites where status, ideology, and anxiety surface materially: they are, in a sense, portraits of us. From this point of view, rooms inhabited by children are doubly fraught, reflecting not only clues to the identity of the child but the viewpoints of parents as well. Through their purchase or acceptance of domestic commodities, parents generate, if not implicitly endorse, the designed spaces that shape the child’s earliest patterns of consumption.

Unraveling the contemporary attitudes towards childhood and parenting that are embedded in representations of the child’s room in American culture, this research analyzes design of children’s spaces captured in two popular sitcoms, Black-ish and Modern Family, showcased in Land of Nod’s February 2016 catalogue, and found in the crisis nursery at the Foundling in New York City, making the case that these spaces act as stabilizing environments against challenges or anxieties projected by the parent.


Labor of Love: Work and the Material Environments of Children’s Rooms

 The mishaps, heartbreak, and hilarity of raising children have inspired too many comedies to count, with no sign of letting up. Indeed, in these features parents will go to great and often ridiculous lengths for the happiness of their children. An episode of Louie memorably demonstrates the frantic labor often brought on by the parent’s desire to be a good guardian: setting up Santa’s gifts for Christmas morning, Louie notices that the doll he purchased for his daughter is missing her eyes, which have popped into the cavity of her head. Prying, shaking, boiling, deconstructing, sewing, and ultimately rebuilding the doll back to perfection, Louie spends all night working on the task. His daughter opens the toy on Christmas morning, unaware of her father’s efforts behind the scenes. Though she is initially overjoyed, the thrill is over in less than ten seconds. Louie rubs his temples in agony.

Cultural theorist Sianne Ngai has addressed the role of similar frenetic labor in American comedy, characterizing it as “zaniness,” an aesthetic of never-enough: never enough time, never enough money, never enough work. Zaniness, according to Ngai, is “a particular style of incessant doing… [It] is essentially the experience of an agent confronted by—and endangered by—too many things coming at her at once.”1Zaniness is Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy, or Lucy Ricardo stuffing her cheeks with chocolates on the factory line: well-meaning characters over-laboring and over-performing tasks, to hilariously disastrous result. Cultural writer Daniel Harris has also examined zaniness, and has written on its ability to serve as a space for “controlled nonconformity.”2In the room of Jack and Diane Johnson in black-ish, this “never-enough”-ness—Ngai’s post-Fordist zaniness—appears in both the room’s décor and its outfitting of toys.

Maxine Shepherd, the show’s production designer, says that considering the personalities within the Johnson family was an essential part of her design process.3 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 in their fields (an anesthesiologist and an advertising executive, respectively). But when it came to the décor 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—indeed, a zany one.  Certain plotlines address this aspect of her identity; for example, she suffers a great deal of stress over the family Christmas card, a production involving costumes, sets, and usually, Rainbow emotionally buckling under pressure. Shepard determined that Rainbow would have been a mother who 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 wacky pairing of competing patterns (florals, robots, geometric motifs, dots, and zig-zags) and colors (electric yellows and pinks, cornflower blue, chartreuse, orange, and violet).

The abundance of playthings in Jack and Diane’s room echoes the zaniness of the décor. Dre Johnson, the patriarch of the family and the father of the twins, is approximately 40 years old in the show, and spent his formative years in Compton. The show frequently addresses Dre’s childhood, particularly the instability of his parents’ marriage and finances. Today, as an affluent advertising executive, he offers his children the best money can offer. Flashbacks to Dre’s childhood, in particular, bring the dynamic between the character’s past and present into sharp relief. In Dre’s case, supplying and over-supplying his children with toys and gifts is a method of illustrating love, as well as his devotion and care 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 episode in the second season focuses on Dre’s poor budgeting and overspending on material goods for himself and his children. While Dre and Rainbow live lavishly themselves, they are also aware of their more modest beginnings, and to them, zany acts of designing and giving are demonstrations of affection—but they are also indications of social and economic mobility and access.

In her column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, writer Amy Fusselman pens an affecting essay on the ways that well-intentioned adults attempt to extend comfort and culture to their children by providing them with art—or, more often, with bizarre and frequently poorly executed murals for their bedrooms. “In creating a child’s bedroom mural,” she writes, “parents are trying to offer their children the encouragement and consolation of art…In anticipation of their children, grown-ups write on the wall.”4 She continues, weighing the fear and delight of new parenthood with a judgment of art and kitsch:

If we’re to really think about the question ‘What is an appropriate artwork for my baby’s room?’ we would begin a list with pieces like Damien’s Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007), which is a skull encrusted with flawless diamonds; or just about anything by Fred Tomaselli, because he is a master seer of the otherworldly…But we don’t think like this. We get busy, and we make the kid-room, and we or our hired artistes put up the not-too-scary dragon mural, and then when the baby arrives we put her in there, in this sort of walk-in safe of a room, a little being in her box with her things, not unlike a tomb, alas, and this is just the beginning.5

Murals, in these spaces, are artifacts of the parents’ zaniness—the over-laboring associated with providing a nurturing and constructive environment. First-time parents, who are ostensibly new to the world of caring for a tiny human, may feel especially overwhelmed in these scenarios. Becoming a parent might just be the ultimate zany act.

In Modern Family, Richard Berg’s design for Lily’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 muscled, 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 the Tucker-Pritchetts, Lily’s adoption from Vietnam was fraught not only with the stress of first-time parenthood, but also with the complexities of navigating gay family and cultural politics. Lily’s arrival into the home, though, becomes the focus of the men’s lives—Cam 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, and what Lily represented to the couple.6With the mural’s incorporation into the nursery, the two are always watching over their daughter.

The labor embedded in these customized paintings should not be overlooked. Created on-site for the infant, the nursery mural is a gift from a parent to a child in the form of an installation. It requires hours of planning and work in addition to years of honing one’s craft as a painter (if the mural is outsourced to a professional, or if the parent is an artist). It cannot be exchanged, returned, or sold down the line—just covered up. It is an original without true means of reproduction, and is endowed with an aura of originality and authenticity, to borrow terminology from Walter Benjamin. Yet they can also be disturbing, tacky, or plain weird, as in likenesses of Cam and Mitchell hovering over Lily’s crib.

The redesigned playroom of the Foundling also features a bold and curious mural, a part of a $100,000 gift to the crisis nursery. The funds and mural were donated by a movie production from 2012, The Oogieloves and the Big Balloon Adventure. Pitched to the Foundling as “the next Teletubbies” (like Teletubbies, the movie was written for very young children), the film was ultimately a flop.7 But at the Foundling, the Oogieloves live on in the form of a mural running the length of the playroom wall. Like Mitch and Cam watching over Lily in the painting on her wall, the Oogieloves provide a handcrafted touch to the redesigned play space.

When the nursery underwent its recent redesign, Stephanie Kearns, a vice president who led the project, recounts that it was of utmost importance that the space “not feel institutional in any way”: the organization strove to create a warm, comfortable, and nurturing environment.8 When a mural wasn’t possible in the visitation rooms for parents and children due to their tendency for wear and tear, temporary decals have provided another avenue for a personal touch. Again capitalizing on partnership with an outside organization, the Foundling has arranged to receive overstock from a decal organization from Canada. Kearns calls this a “workaround” for creating a warm and inviting space, emphasizing the importance of creating a friendly and welcoming environment for its clients.

Whereas Modern Family and black-ish present a secure family unit and material abundance, the children’s environments channel the anxieties felt by the parents—the zany need to provide a loving home in the face of adversity, the compulsion to “have it all.” The Foundling, though, must grapple with chaos that can assume any number of forms, from the background hum of a guardian’s addiction issues to the screeching crash of a divorce or death in the family. Using visual cues of personalization and embedded effort, it seeks to provide normalcy and individual care in a period of upheaval. Design, for both sitcoms and the Foundling’s crisis playroom, at once manifests and attempts to quell the anxieties experienced by these parents.

  1. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 182–3.
  2. Daniel Harris, Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic, (Boston: Da Capo, 2000), 109.
  3. Maxine Shepard in conversation with author, February 2016.
  4. Amy Fusselman, “On the Subject of Art in a Child’s Room,” McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, accessed March 5, 2016, http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/on-the-subject-of-art-in-a-childs-room.
  5. Richard Berg in conversation with the author, February 2016.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Stephanie Kearns in conversation with author, March 2016.
  8. Ibid.