MAPLE bunk beds for boys and pastel-painted French provincial pieces for girls were once the prevailing furniture choices for children's rooms. Not any more. Today families can choose from a wide range of innovative children's furnishings offering flexibility, individuality, and a degree of sophistication.
Most current designers of juvenile furniture are well aware of the downsizing of children's rooms in today's homes and of a consequent need for multipurpose pieces, easy convertibility, and modular put-togethers that stack and bunch. Wood, or wood clad with scuff-proof vinyl, is still a standby, although several companies now specialize in lighter-scaled, lighter-looking pieces made of tubular steel painted in many colors.
Charles Anacker, who designed the Saratoga Circus group for Landes of Gardena , Calif., believes children's furniture ''should be timeless, last a long time, not get obsolete, and yet appeal to the fashion awareness of both parents and children.
''Children who begin wearing designer blue jeans when they are toddlers become fashion-conscious at an early age. It is a reality of our times.''
What do children want most in furniture for their rooms? ''It needs to be fun, bright in color, and likable,'' he says. ''A child needs to be able to play-act and fantasize with his furnishings. He likes a little excitement and imagination in his surroundings. Yet he also needs to be able to find a little privacy.
''A child should have the feeling,'' Mr. Anacker continues, ''that he can just sit in his own little space and feel very cozy, and read, play, or invite a friend or two to share his private place if he chooses.''
Almost every child, he notes, likes to have friends over to spend the night, so it is important to provide extra sleeping space in their rooms.
''I find that most kids love bunk beds because the top bunk and the ladder leading up to it represent a challenge and enable them to feel like the king of the mountain. But we do put tags on all our beds to say that no child under six years old should sleep in the upper bunk.''
Other things that children appreciate, says the designer, are adjustable closet rods that begin at the three-year-old level and can be moved up each year. They also like movable bins or wagons for quick pickups of scattered toys and adequate shelves on which to place them.
What do most parents look for in furnishings for their children's rooms? ''Furniture that is attractive, functional, affordable, and, above all, safe,'' the designer says. Most parents, he finds, are willing to pay somewhat more for children's furniture that they perceive to be well made and to have long-range value. They want furnishings versatile enough to remain appealing to a child at least through early or middle adolescence and sturdy enough to then pass along to younger children or grandchildren.
''One of the reasons I chose the circus theme for my first group of children's furniture,'' the designer says, ''is because both children and parents love the fantasy of it.'' Circus wagon wheels, cut in half, act as guard rails. A bunk bed can become a corner unit simply by sliding the lower bed at right angles to the upper. Or bunk beds can be separated for use as single beds. The cradle, with canopy added, turns into a two-seater rocking settee. The crib, its sides removed and the frame stretched lengthwise by a simple device, becomes a daybed that accommodates a 30-by-75-inch mattress. The wardrobe easily converts to a highboy.
A toy cart can also serve as a play store or lemonade stand. A desk and desk chair and under-bed storage bins are also part of the colorful collection. The canvas or poly-duck curtains and covers are washable and replaceable and come in 20 colors. Red is the favorite color of very young children, followed by blue, white, and yellow.
As a child grows older, the bright circus stripes can be replaced by plain colors such as seafoam green or off-white to change the mood entirely. All the Landes furniture comes knocked down in cartons and is easily put together at home. It is sold through department and children's stores across the country and through interior designers.
Amisco Industries Ltd., a Canadian-based firm, has also brought brilliantly colored tubular steel children's furnishings to the United States in the past few years. In addition to the primary colors, the company is also showing burgundy, pink, deep green, and rich brown in a line that includes stools, small tables, bunk beds, a rolling TV-audio cart, a clean-lined computer table, and modular bookshelves.
Many parents and children prefer the challenge of putting together as a single unit the highly versatile wood components that meet their specific requirements for shelves, drawers, desks, and sleepers. Lea Industries calls one of its offerings the Build-A-Bed. It includes eight units (bunk bed, daybed, ladder, rails, chest, under-bed storage drawers, and pop-up trundle) that can combine in 15 different ways. Modular Concepts Inc. of Valley Stream, N.Y., offers multiple-use pieces that can also offer imaginative solutions to space problems.
Thomasville Furniture's Armstrong Division introduced a hardwood Crestview Collection that can be compactly assembled, with upper bunk, for a child's room. It can be rearranged with twin beds to suit an adult guest room.
Stanley Furniture's ''Freedom Trail'' also includes a space-saving bunk bed with under-bed storage, which can later be converted for use in a first apartment or small home.
The Bunk-Trunk group shown here is made by Theodore Michaels of Paterson, N.J. It includes a collection of basic sleep and storage units that can be combined in some 200 different ways. New elements are designed each year. Bunk-Trunk is an add-on system, and pieces can be rearranged to suit the size and shape of a room as well as a child's needs at different ages.