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June 14, 1987|Virginia Gray

The number of births in this country has remained virtually unchanged since 1979, but sales of furniture for the nursery or juvenile bedroom have risen from approximately $700 million a year to almost $2 billion.

Now another surprising fact: Nearly half of the babies born in 1986 were to first-time parents in their late 20s, 30s and even 40s. Many of these parents went from being dinks (dual income, no kids) to diks (dual income, kids), who demand and can afford stylish, well-designed furnishings for their children.

One of the hottest markets today is manufacturing and retailing furnishings for the crib, preschool and preteen sets. Parents wanting to go first-class for their children now have a myriad of available choices, which were previously unavailable.

Many cribs sold today convert into junior- or youth-size beds, an interim-size bed smaller than a regular twin-size bed. There are glitzy all-brass cribs, antique-looking painted iron ones, rattan-trimmed models, little-girl pink ones, baby-boy blue ones--the choices are staggering. A variety of matching chests, armoires, desks, changing tables that convert later into chests are available as well to complete a bedroom ensemble. Reputable American manufacturing companies such as Childcraft, Simmons, Hedstrom, Medallion and Bassett and their conventional retail outlets have been receiving strong competition from Europe, with the onslaught of stores like Bellini and Lewis of London (both in this area), who offer pricey, often higher-styled European designs.

Yes, Eurostyle has even reached into the child's room. According to a Bellini stores representative, the average cost of furnishing a typical nursery with their furniture is from $2,000 to $2,500. This includes a crib that converts to a bed, two pieces of storage furniture, a rocking chair and linens. This sum does not include other baby accouterments--strollers, carriers, car seats, infant swings, baby monitors or toys. Nor does it include wallpaper or other room decorations. And retailers say furniture sales are booming and show no indications of slowing down.

Today's broad choice of designs is a relatively recent phenomenon. Ten years ago design-conscious parents really had to search for good design.

One local company, H.U.D.D.L.E., was born out of this need for attractive furniture for young people. In the early 1970s, Jim and Penny Hull, who had two young children, opened their first H.U.D.D.L.E. store, offering unusual bunk beds and bed styles for childrens' rooms. Jim Hull, an architect with a degree in urban design, designed the furniture and Penny designed the fabrics and bedding. "We began this company to fill a need, our own and for others. We couldn't find kids' furniture that we liked and neither could our friends. We have tried to continually update our lines, but a few of our older designs are still best sellers," said Jim Hull.

Another local success story involves architect and design-conscious father Gary Gilbar, AIA, and his partner, Marcia Herman. Less than two years ago they opened their first store, Fun Furniture, on Beverly Boulevard, near the Beverly Center. Recognizing that there were still gaps in the kids' furniture market, especially for the post-crib set, Gilbar created his own designs, with strong architectural overtones. He has designed a headboard that has a variety of embellishments--a cityscape, baseball players, hearts, stars, a house, his interpretation of the Statue of Liberty, all of colored Formica. He has created storage cabinets that feature similar motifs. His shelving units, some of which contain desks, look like high-rise buildings, palm trees, the Empire State Building. Pittsburgh-based furniture designer Dan Droz (who creates products for manufacturers such as Hedstrom, Amisco and most recently designs for several Danish companies) sums up today's phenomenal growth in children's furniture: "Quality of design is something that directly affects buying decisions. You can now buy terrific children's furnishings because an enormous market has been created by late-budding families who can afford stylish goods. My role as a designer has been to make more satisfying products that are safer, more durable and that give the user a sense of pleasure through good design."

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