Heading home from the beach one blistering day last month, Gina Santana and Donita Manzo pulled off the freeway at a children's furniture store in Tustin.
Manzo and her children tagged along as Santana--cradling her infant son while keeping an eye on her restive 3-year-old daughter--strolled around a showroom filled with tidy bedroom sets.
She stopped a few times to check price tags. She asked a few questions. And when she stepped back into the dry heat of the afternoon, she wasn't any closer to making a decision on new furniture for her daughter, Brianne.
"I'm thinking of getting a little bedroom set for Bree," Santana said, "but it's hard to know what to get her because when you think about kids' furniture--what can you get that will last their whole childhood? By the time she's 10, she'll want something different, then by the time she's 13 or 14, she'll want to change it again.
"I guess all I know right now," said the Brea mother, "is I'm not spending more than $1,200--tops!"
Like many young parents planning their kids' rooms, Santana has a clear eye on the bottom line. And as for her difficulty in deciding on decor, she's surely not alone on that score either.
"You have to take a lot into consideration when you decorate a child's bedroom," said Sandra Hayes, president of the Orange County chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers.
"Usually it's a small room, and it's serving three purposes: a place to sleep, a place to play, a place to study. It's their private little corner of the world," she said.
"Children are very creative and imaginative and you want to promote that when you work on their rooms," said Hayes, suggesting simple, durable furniture with "clean lines," accented by cartoon or storybook characters painted on the walls, or inexpensive wall-coverings readily available at most paint stores.
"There's so much out there now for children's rooms; the market has really blossomed," she said. "If you just walk through a bedding section in any department store you can get tons of ideas. You should take your child with you when you go, and let him or her be part of the decorating process."
Joyce Lachenmyer, manager of Kids Room in Tustin--the store Santana and Manzo browsed recently--said customers generally switch from nursery to children's furniture when their children are 3 or 4 years old.
"Our typical customer is a pregnant woman, with her 3-year-old in tow," said Lachenmyer. "She comes in during the week, scouts around, then comes back with the husband on Saturday."
So should a 3-year-old be included in decorating decisions?
Definitely, said designer Elsa Rosene of Corona del Mar.
"I've had a number of children as young as 3 pick their own wallpaper and fabrics," said Rosene, who's been in the business for 20 years. "I remember this one particular 3-year-old--we had talked about a fabric for her room on one visit, and the next time I came over, I was talking with her mother and the little girl pointed to (the fabric) and said, 'That's mine!' She was adamant about it."
Rosene said the final design of that little girl's room, furnished in whitewashed oak, included a trundle daybed, a highboy chest of drawers, a bedside table and a toy chest. Rosene used two patterned fabrics for the drapes, bedcovers, cushions and throw pillows.
"The furniture was very good quality," she said, "something that the child can have forever, can pass down to her kids. I don't per se use children's furniture. I use good furniture that will last a long time."
As was the case with that particular toddler, the latest trend is toward more sophisticated furnishings for youngsters, Rosene said.
"People are getting away from doing really whimsical design," she said. "In a nursery, sure, but for 3 or 4 (years old), we go more sophisticated. In another year or two they will be playing with computers, and because of that, they have their computer furniture, which gives the room a more high-tech feeling."
Designer Michael Koski agrees with Hayes and Rosene that children should be included in the decorating process, but the Laguna Niguel designer of two decades is all for whimsy. Two recent examples:
A metal statue of a horse, six feet tall from hoofs to ears, parked in the room of a 10-year-old Laguna Beach boy. ("I wanted something he could throw his clothes on," explained Koski, "and this horse looks great draped in clothes.")
Hand-painted wallpaper, all lavenders and purples and blues, in the Coto de Caza bedroom of a 5-year-old girl. ("It looks like an abstract painting wrapped around the whole room," said the designer.)
If Koski's designs tend to be extravagant, they only match the price: On average , he said, a child's room runs $10,000. So sure, this is the high end--but it's also the child's world, according to Koski, with the emphasis on playfulness and visual distinction.