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Rooms to Grow : Decorator Antonio Torrice allows children to plan their bedrooms, and parents say youngsters' attitudes improve.


So satisfied was 20-month-old Aaron Bellings with the work of his interior decorator thatfor months he would excitedly toddle to greet visitors to his San Francisco home. "Come see nice, nice," he would implore as he tugged them toward his bedroom.

Similarly proud of their newly decorated space, 6-year-old Mathew Nagel and 3-year-old Gregory, of Burlingame, would dash for the dust pan and broom to clean up any accidental mess they or their parents made.

When his drab beige room sprouted into a color-garden of greens, then-preschooler Brian Barrios, of Valencia, startled his family by shedding his reticence and conquering a persistent stutter.

All four clients have enjoyed the services of California interior decorator Antonio Torrice, whose Burlingame-based firm, Living and Learning Environments, has found a niche in the nation's design business by working for children.

Trained in pediatric psychology, Torrice espouses a design philosophy that has little to do with Bart Simpson sheets and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Children, not parents, he believes, should decide the what's, where's and how's of decorating their rooms.

In creating their own living spaces, children enhance their self-esteem and accelerate their development. The results can be immediately evident, with children altering their habits, attitudes and even improving their physical well-being.

In a simple design approach, Torrice categorizes a child's decorating needs into the areas of color, choice and convertibility. Colors have a therapeutic effect, he says, and should be chosen by the child, who will naturally satisfy his or her physiological requirements. The room also should be sophisticated and flexible enough to serve the child virtually from the crib to the teen-age years with minimal cost after an initial $2,000 to $4,000 expense, which includes Torrice's decorating fee.

Last year, Torrice published his ideas in the book, "In My Room: Designing for and With Children," co-authored with Ro Logrippo, a Bay Area design journalist who has become his partner.

In a statement accompanying the book, child psychologist and author Lee Salk touts Torrice's views as "an enormous contribution to the mental health of children."

Selina Guber, a psychologist and director of Childrens Market Research in New York, which organizes focus groups to determine children's likes, also stresses that youngsters should be involved in refurnishing projects: "The room is their security. They don't want things changed suddenly. It could be very upsetting for them."

Working out of an office loft, appointed with such props as giant crayons, Torrice, a bouncy 39-year-old, is busily translating such views into a cottage industry.

Last spring, he launched a line of stackable, convertible furniture, called Environmental Teen Concepts, for Child Craft, a major manufacturer of children's furniture. And he is readying an educational design exhibit, featuring talking furniture, which is scheduled to tour children's museums next year.

Awarded the American Society of Interior Designers Human Environment Award in 1985, Torrice also is working on a self-initiated study of the country's child-care sites, which will be presented in a report next spring to Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos.

His approach to decorating, which he promotes in lectures to groups of student and professional designers, is tailor-made for small clients. Called in by their parents, Torrice nevertheless heads straight for the youngest members of the family. He sits on the floor with them in their rooms and gets to know the world as they see it.

He asks them about their hobbies and the subjects they like best in school, and he listens to their concerns about falling out of bed and the scary things that might jump out of the closet at night.

Drawing "word maps" with a black marker on a brown grocery bag, Torrice places the room's elements where the child indicates. And, unlike obstinate parents, he never says no outright, even when clients tell him they want a roller coaster in their rooms.

"Their being in charge is an important message," says Torrice. "They see so much on TV that says, 'You're out of control.' But in their room, they're in charge."

Countering parents who think their tots are too tiny to know what they want, Torrice believes they express themselves both freely and firmly. "They're not biased toward what Calvin Klein tells them to wear," he says, adding: "My highest ratio of success is with 2- to 5-year-olds."

The problem lies with the big people, Torrice says. "Parents like to build rooms for their children as rooms they never had themselves--the racing car bed with the basketball wallpaper for my son and the frilly canopy bed for my daughter. They are often adult visions of what a child would like."

As a result, he says, parents tell him, " 'I buy all these wonderful things for my kid. Why is my kid's room always a mess?'

" 'Well, really it's not his or her room. It's your room,' " Torrice replies.

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