My task was simple, or so it seemed: create a chic, boyish nursery for my second baby. It should’ve been easy – I’ve been designing and decorating kids’ rooms and nurseries for years – well before I had my first child and fully understood what and who they were for: the parents. I’ve researched and reviewed baby and kids’ furniture – I know what’s out there but more importantly, I know what I like.
Then it got complicated: make it affordable – mine was a recession pregnancy – probably conceived around the time we went down to basic cable. Make it easy-on-the-house – we are renters, lying in wait until the housing miasma cools off in one way or another. Make it better than the first time – my older son’s nursery was darling, but now that I’ve earned a few parenting stripes, there is room for improvement with respect to functionality, aka, making mama’s life easier. Finally, notching up a full degree of difficulty -- make it asthma-proof – my older son’s nebulizer already gets plenty of use – nothing that contributes even a trace of gross air would be allowed.
I also wanted to create a space for me. That’s right. I would be clocking many long hours, even a few dark nights of the breastfeeding soul in that room, and I want to be happy there. No, that’s not true – I want to be peaceful there. The days and nights of mothering aren’t always happy-go-lucky – they are intense, and sometimes immensely challenging. I wanted a space that would nurture me as I nurtured my son, and make me feel calm.
Not such a tall order is it?
Design should be able to do at least this much in my book. When you add a healthy nesting instinct courtesy of pregnancy, anything is possible. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 4am and 22 weeks, I pulled up the vinyl tile in one of our bathrooms with my fingernails (sounds harder than it is) speculating that the original ‘40s mint-green tile lie in repose underneath. I was right – little green chiclets in Tetris-like configuration were revealed in time for breakfast. So for Luke’s nursery, I had both energy and gusto; I just needed to start. Manic indecision accompanies the nesting instinct for me. Luckily, a field trip to see fish and tire out my toddler gave me just what I needed – my kernel.
I always need one. It need not be so obvious as a swatch or a clip from a magazine. It can be a mood, an experience, a word – something to light the path for all the decisions to come. For Luke’s nursery that kernel arrived on a visit to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey when I was 7 months pregnant. On that particular day, I was too fat, slow and cranky to keep up with my always-climbing-or-running-somewhere then-18-month-old. The aquarium was not the perfect place for an 18-month old as he was still too short to see most of the exhibits. I spent most of the time “carrying” him as he worked his best alligator-roll to wriggle free. Then we came to the school of fish tank.
The fish circulated the tank in their synchronized dance like perfectly svelte ballerinas scurrying off-stage and then back again, and then off, and then back again. It was a moment of Zen and quiet and breathtaking beauty. We both stood still for a good two minutes, a record. I had my kernel.
For those of you who don’t know me, I’m big. Over six-feet-tall with size 12 or 13 feet, depending on my daily pain threshold. I don’t do small. I even have big babies, 9.8 and 10.2lbs respectively. For my work, I like things OVERSIZED. I just say no, as a rule, to miniature baby balloon mobiles and imperceptible prints of you-guess-it-baby animals. Save sweet for dessert. Every space – especially bento-box-sized bedrooms, should have one large element that wraps the room and anchors the style. In my bedroom, it’s an oversized upholstered headboard in valiant navy and white, standing taller than necessary above the bed, with four vintage Paris prints standing at attention above it. It’s a little Nantucket-meets-St.-Germain-tag sale and it suits me. I needed my one big thing for Luke’s room, but there were already so many parameters – cheap, air-quality neutral, not-permanent, boyishly chic and what else? Oh, yes modern.
If the nursery fits…
I like matching -- styles, vibes, moods – not so much color - but matching sensibility in a house is important. Walking from room to room in your house should be like reading from the same book. Walking into a Dora-fied girl’s room or a Disney-plagued nursery when the rest of the house is chic, minimalist or just less obvious is a decorating non sequitur. This nursery had to match my rental house, which is affectionately mid-century modern, or truthfully, late-1940’s drab. It’s simple and straightforward and small. I’ve made it colorful and comfortable and laced with childishness –not dominated by it. Luke’s room would be the next chapter.
A word on themes
I even hate the word, “theme.” I throw up in my mouth a bit when someone tells me the “theme they’re going for.” Themes set up limitations and rules setting you up to create a diorama, not a room. If you held me at knife-point and asked me what my “theme” was for this nursery, I would have said, “underwater zen.” But this meant different things to me at different (hormone-driven) times and I like the freedom to change my mind – let a project take a different direction. It need not be so obvious, either. Some of the connection is for my experience only – the vintage toy box beside the nursing chair is actually an original Pirate’s Booty Toy Box from the 1950’s, given to me by an elderly neighbor. On the outside it just looks like an old painted toy chest. That’s enough for me.
Seamen had a hand in it, naturally
I got to thinking about maritime life, in addition to fish. On a sail boat cruise, many moons ago, I was mesmerized by the glossed, curvy, built-in wood furniture in the bedroom quarters, which inspired my choices for the dresser and crib. For the changing table, I chose a dresser – something my son could use through adulthood. The only thing in my house that can have such an obvious expiration-of-use-date is the crib – no changing tables here. I also devoted an entire wall into the changing-station – utilizing IKEA kitchen shelves on the wall and multiple hooks. This way I kept all the supplies I would need at eye-level, out of grabbing or kicking reach. Task lighting directly above, on a dimmer, helps me see all the dirty business, even in the middle of the night when neither my son or I could much handle a bright light. A baby’s room should be both soothing and stimulating – much of this can be achieved through dimmers. The overhead light, shaped like a porthole, also from IKEA, is also on a dimmer so I am in total control of the mood of the room at all times. (Unlike my actual moods.)
When it came to the crib, I struggled. My older son was still in his crib. Should I move him? I’m frugal to a fault. Then I found the Argington BAM collection crib in bamboo and I forgot about anything else. It’s as sexy as cribs get. It’s curved, slender and solid at the same time. Bamboo has an intricate texture which Argington has used in a deliberate way in shape - I spent a lot of time staring at it in low light, rather peacefully, nursing my son in the early days and weeks. I also know a bit about Argington, run by a fabulous couple in Brooklyn, and knowing the story behind your goods always feels right. So there it was, the BAM crib in bamboo, which paired beautifully with my exquisitely inexpensive Craigslist dresser – that’s better than Christmas for me. For the rocker, I went masculine. What would Don Draper sit in if he were to get up and nurse my son four times a night? Definitely the Empire Rocker by Nurseryworks, which I bought on sale from my friend Summer, of Fawn & Forest fame. It’s deliciously comfortable and built for breastfeeding, although you’d never know it. I call it my smoking rocking chair.
It just felt right
I had decided to do a mural – no an installation – remember my statement on BIG? Certainly vinyl appliqués are oh so popular. I love them – don’t get me wrong – but I wanted to have my hands on more of this room –more than just ordering a wall appliqué from someone else. What’s more, vinyl has been accused of environmental misdeeds and if nothing else is certainly not air quality neutral, rendering it ineligible for my asthma-friendly space. This mural would be hand-made, odorless and natural. Felt is somehow Elizabethan, grade-school and grandmotherly. Fuzzy but not cutesy. A school of felt fish it was to be. I consulted my husband, a suburban naturalist, as well as my sister, a marine biologist, on proper anatomical choices for my school. Then I did what I really wanted – I created a very simple, very straightforward elongated fish out of cardboard, and then started cutting….and cutting…and cutting. About 150 fish in crazy, unnatural, all-over-the-map shades of green and blue.
I’ve got more than just the blues
Luckily, through Etsy, I found a lovely felt purveyor who calls herself Giantdwarf. They are, as she promised on the phone, “the juiciest, most delicious colors.” My fish wall became an invitation to dip in and out of muted, vibrant and everything-in-between in green and blue for the flooring, the drapes, the accessories. A blended mix of colors became the clear choice for my FLOR tiles. For paint, I chose green because blue rooms don’t work for me. Green rooms are hard to do right, but I just prefer them, so I made baby sage walls in Appalachian Green 852 from Benjamin Moore. Benjamin Moore’s Natura line rocks because it’s no-VOC, rendering it air-quality neutral, but beyond that, it impressed my skeptical-of-anything-natural husband, who loved how it covered. For accessories I dipped into vintage – a rusty metal seahorse from the outside of an old Cape Cod house, found on The Sage Scottie on Etsy and a pair of porcelain baby booties in baby blue from a yard sale. Two prints –the only overtly marine elements beyond the fish – lovely, almost abstract and simple by Jenna Bowles. To hold creams, q-tips, clippers, thermometers, etc., I used a set of martini shakers. (Reuse, recycle! My martini days are done, for everyone’s sake.) For storage in the room, I invested in Way Basics’ Tool Free Modular Storage Cubes which can be hung on the wall, reconfigured to make a low bench or be separated as we evolve from breastfeeding nights to story time, to Tonka truck storage.
With my son approaching his six-month-birthday, I can tell you he’s been a very calm and happy baby. Is it the room? Who knows. I do believe because of their bright colors and mellow form, he enjoyed them even in the days of groggy newborn blindness. What’s more –I really enjoy this room. I feel like it does justice to the rest of our house – it is a combination of old and new, clever, simple and crafty. And the best part? I went beyond affordable into inexpensive -- my ultimate cat-that-got-the-canary in decorating. This nursery reminds me that good design is a lot like pregnancy – a process that can’t be rushed, is sometimes uncomfortable, involves quite a bit of work that’s almost always underestimated or ignored at conception, and in the end the result is always better than you expected. Almost makes me ready to underestimate the challenge of baby #3. Almost.
(Photos above: Erik Rank)
Paige Rien is a designer and mother and has graced the small screen on HGTV’s Hidden Potential as well as designed for Curb Appeal. She lives in Summit, NJ with her husband and two young sons. She believes that “every home can be magnificent – deeply personal, highly functional and fabulously beautiful.” She is the owner and principal of Rien With an Eye for Design © You can contact Paige through PaigeRien.com as well as visit her blog.
THANK YOU PAIGE!