Artists Craft Fun Furniture For Kids

Zany, playful, imaginative, children's chairs, tables, and other art furniture are both whimsical and functional

FURNITURE artists are letting loose with whimsical images and imaginative designs to create beautifully-crafted art furniture for children.

Big people and little people alike will delight in furniture designed especially for kids that is decorative, educational, and versatile.

Art furniture is primarily artistic but also functional. Pieces designed for children are distinctly artistic as well as zany, colorful, playful, and imaginative.

Some pieces capture images of childhood nostalgia; others speak more of texture, form, or adaptability. And while uniformly smaller in scale than adult art furniture, the pieces evoke distinctively individual styles.

"We have furniture pieces that deal with the environment, personal crises, issues, or pieces just meant to be playful - as if the artists were remembering when they were children and things that were appealing to them," says David Edlefsen, curator of a children's art-furniture exhibit titled "The House that Jack Built" at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in Alaska. The exhibit, featuring a collection of 32 pieces by 30 artists, will run until May 15.

"Many of these pieces go beyond their function as furniture, and they really do become works of art, not only because they are unique pieces but because they tell stories and they engage us in dialogue about other issues," Mr. Edlefsen says.

Pieces in the exhibit include a cabinet that resembles a skateboarder, a colorful rocking chair made of carved wooden snakes called "Reptile Rocker," and a bed made entirely of feathers with a stone pillow. Half the pieces in the exhibit have been sold.

Furniture artists at New York's Peter Joseph Gallery have also delved into children's designs. The gallery, which opened two years ago to promote interest in contemporary art furniture, featured 11 furniture artists as part of a special children's exhibit last fall.

Four Peter Joseph Gallery furniture artists have particularly effective approaches to designing furniture for children.

Michelle Holzapfel's intricately sculptured "Raggedy Ann" bookends, for example, have the same detailed look as her carved wooden bowls and vases. Made out of different hardwoods, the bookends display a cozy indoor childhood scene: a group of children's story books, a bedtime snack plate of cookies, a cup of hot cocoa, and a slouching Raggedy Ann doll.

Ms. Holzapfel says the bookends, which sold for $13,000, draw on her own interest in reading books as a child.

"I really like using wood," she says. "It's a fantastic material in that it's very malleable in a peculiar way even though it's hard. It can take all kinds of surface treatment to create all these textures and forms that go beyond this hard straight wood."

Art furnituremaker Edward Zucca's "rocket bed" captures his own childhood memories of science-fiction TV shows, movies, and cartoon characters of the 1950s. The legs of the bed look like mini cartoon-like rockets, while the headboard, made of poplar wood, is a portrait of the galaxy based on actual photos taken by telescopes, he says.

"It's basically a functional bed as far as the design goes," Mr. Zucca says. "It mostly has to do with nostalgia with the 1940s and 1950s style futuristic designs of man's visions for outer-space travel as they appeared when I was a child."

ARTIST John Dunnigan is also inspired by childhood memories. His child-sized Adirondack chair is a very simple, yet uniquely designed outdoor chair made of red cedar. Curvy pieces of wood line the chair's back making a wavy, playful pattern.

Graffitti-style lettering of the names of birds - such as sparrow, robin, and bluejay - is carved on the chair's armrests. Mr. Dunnigan was inspired to carve the names because he enjoys sitting outside and observing the birds that live in his own wooded backyard in Rhode Island.

"What I really got into with this was that first memory of sort of carving your name or something in a tree or a school desk when you were a kid," he says. "I had all these wonderful associations with that and began carving away, hopefully leaving plenty of room for whoever owns this chair to carve more things in themselves."

While some pieces speak of childhood nostalgia, others speak of function and versatility.

Sculptor Wendell Castle's youth chair, which he whimsically titles "Yoot's Chair 1992," is a small table-like chair that sits on top of another table. The two pieces are also interchangeable so each can function independently of the other.

Likewise, Mr. Castle's "An Anxious Object Jr, 1992," is a child-sized desk that can also function as a coffee table for adults. Castle's concern that his pieces have many uses is based on the idea, he says, that children's furniture "is very short-lived."

Other artists agree. While many wood artists enjoy the fun of designing pieces for children, some say creating contemporary art furniture for kids will remain a limited field.

"Art furniture tends to be very expensive and children tend to outgrow things," Mr. Zucca says. "And I can't imagine too many parents wanting to spend a large chunk of money on things that can only be used for a fairly short time."

Nevertheless, interest in the furniture will continue to inspire creative endeavors, Edlefsen says.

"I think there is considerable interest in the whole notion of children's furniture," he says. "People who couldn't afford this kind of furniture ... may consider painting their own furniture as some of these pieces have been painted or commissioning a local artist to construct something that is more unusual."

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