Designer Liz Levin on troubleshooting elementary and tween decor

August 29, 2012

When Bethesda designer Liz Levin had her first daughter, Julia, now 4, she fell into what she calls “design panic.”

“Suddenly, all I saw were sharp corners, toxic finishes and poor investments,” she said. “Safety became number one, and figuring out how to best spend money on my growing kid became number two.”

Levin, who now has a second daughter, 13-month-old Naomi, made some adjustments. In 2009 she launched a second design and online retail business called Nesting that sells family- and pet-friendly furnishings. She befriended indoor-outdoor fabrics, fiber-sealed her carpet and upholstery and resisted buying anything that wasn’t machine-washable.

She also found fellowship with parents who were encountering similar design fears and conundrums. “Moms call me all the time asking things like, ‘Do I have to get bungee bumpers? How do I know the finish isn’t full of toxins? Should I really let my kid decorate their own room?’ Parents want to invest in things that are safe, smart and not ugly, but that's tough.”

Investing in bedroom decor becomes particularly tricky once kids grow out of the nursery. Parents struggle to find a balance between encouraging their children to express themselves and buying items they might not want in a year, Levin said.


"Room for Children: Stylish Spaces for Sleep and Play" by Susanna Salk is one of designer Liz Levin’s go-to sources. (Rizzoli/RIZZOLI)

So exactly how much say should kids have in decorating their own spaces? It depends on their age, of course, but Levin recommends parents take the lead so long as they’re footing the bill. Narrow down the options to a few that the adults in the house are okay with and see which ones the children respond to. It’s a win-win.

“When I was 11, my mom and her friend, who was a decorator, showed me a few wallpaper sets that I got to choose from,” Levin said. “Design choices are overwhelming for adults, so can you imagine asking a kid to start from scratch?”

To avoid wasting money on trendy decor, keep the more permanent pieces neutral and high-quality. Levin calls this her “khaki pants rule.” The staple items, such as a bed, dresser or nightstands, should be versatile and neutral, like a pair of khaki pants. Then the space can be dressed up or down with accessories.

“Don’t buy a hot pink princess headboard when your daughter is 7 years old, because that’s a big, expensive, annoying item to change when she’s 10 and doesn’t want it anymore,” she said. “Instead, get a few hot pink pillows or a girly lamp from Land of Nod.”

Staple items don’t mean furniture sets, though. Much like adult or communal spaces, children’s rooms should look more eclectic and less catalogue.

“People are steering away from the ‘bed-in-a-bag’ look,” she said. “There’s no reason kid’s rooms need Disney beds or cartoon themes. . . . They’re individuals, so parents are approaching their rooms with a little more sophistication rather than treating them like a second playroom.”

But what if the bedroom must be shared between two children? For this, Levin recommends finding unifying elements while still creating two distinct personal areas. And because two people in one room is a lot to take in visually, accessories should be complementary but not identical.

“If I had twin girls, I’d start with matching twin beds and upholstered headboards. Then, I’d pick a palette of three colors for them to choose from. This lets the room speak to their personalities without letting the whole thing run wild.”

For inspiration, Levin turns to Pinterest or “Room for Children,” a 2010 book by design editor Susanna Salk. “It’s the single best resource for smart, well-designed kid’s rooms,” she said. “They’re timeless and sophisticated, but most of all, they’re livable.”

2012 Kid’s Room Contest Submit your own photos of your child’s room for a chance to win a $100 American Express gift card.

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