words Sam Jacob
Our first interaction with design is an unsettling, darkly psychedelic experience: a look at some new products for babies.
Every designer faces the problem of seeing their work through the eyes of an imagined user. Much like method acting, it’s a way of thinking of yourself into the skin of somebody else. Hard as it might be to empathise with other human beings, imagine unravelling yourself to a point where you forget culture, knowledge and language. To imagine a state of being human that is so raw and primal as to be mysteriously alien. In the R&D labs of toy manufacturers, teams of designers in the 0-3 month department mentally transform themselves into babies.
That’s because the rules for adult design don’t make sense for babies. And it’s why a strange logic pervades baby design. Here’s an example: The Slumber Bear, a bear with a heart-shaped mechanism inserted through a slit in its stomach. It plays a intra-uterine recording of “Womb Sound”, activated by motion sensors. It’s supposed to reassuring the baby, but it’s bionic-sonic Frankenstein-ness makes me feel queasy.
Different companies have developed whole aesthetic ideologies. Fisher Price has a futuristic cartoonness. White white plastic, smooth smooth curves, clipped together like a Chris Cunningham robot. Its whiteness is as full of love and promise as wedding cake icing, smooth like a sports car, stylised like a Shigeru Miyamoto character, shiny like the liquid skin of melting block of ice. If your eyes follow the surface, like a droid over an alien planet, it plumes from machined abstract nothingness into an oasis of joy: the plastic form bursting into baroque sculptural ecstasy.
The Fisher Price “Ocean Wonders Aquarium” is a beautiful woozy, bubbling, water-filled scene where fish wobble and an oyster with a pearl opens and shuts, all softly underlit so it feels like a cavernous grotto. It is accompanied by waves, rain and a strange whooshing version of Rock-a-bye-Baby that sounds like a heart being played like an accordion. This plastic romanticism is underwritten with serious claims of “enhancing problem solving, auditory skills, and visual skills”.
Tiny Love has developed a clip-together system that’s an instant piece of infrastructure for babies. The Deluxe Playgym has a fabric mat, with two arches than pop together. A pouch in the mat contains a mini son-et-lumière show. The mat is a kind of patchwork landscape. Three flowers flash on and off in time to Mozart, the ear of an elephant flaps up, full of that crackley sound that sounds like fire. A bird on an elephant’s back squeaks when you press it. Devices clip into the arches: an abseiling elephant, a monkey, a swivelling parrot, a mirror. This clip-on, pop-together system is covered in fuzzy felt, like high-tech architecture zapped with a cute ray.
Tiny Love’s Symphony-in-Motion is a fantastic Jean Tinguley-esque mechanical musical mobile that spins with visual fizz above the baby. Dangling and clanking against a background of hypnotic spirals are a sphere (with a spotted hat and curly tail), a cube (with a stripy star-tipped tail), and a pyramid (with a heart-shaped comb) like Le Corbusier’s primary solids reworked by Paul Daniels and Wizzbit.
The musical plays “helps stabilise neural connections” – more precisely, for cognitive development: Mozart’s Andante Grazioso from Piano Sonata K331 in A Major (theme and variations). For stimulation, Beethoven’s Second Movement from Piano Sonata in E Minor. And for relaxation, Bach’s Prelude in C Major from Das Wohltempierte. I want a bear that moans: “This is the way/step inside.”
There are other approaches – the Mamas and Papas catalogue features lots of blond wood and blond MILFs (if you’ve been reading your spam, you’ll know that’s a charming acronym). Designed in Clapham-Sunday-Afternoon-Modern, it’s for parents who refuse to choose between their child and an Elle Decoration photoshoot. It might also be a subversive attempt to explore alternative child design aesthetics.
Babies gaze into the tonal difference at the corner of a room as much as the crazy coloured stuff thrust in front of them. Which suggests it’s right to wonder about the visual language of baby design. Why all these animals and flowers?
This drive towards narrative is explained by Jean Paul Sartre: “A man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his stories and those of other people, he sees everything that happens to him in terms of these stories and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.”
Barbara Kruger, with a picture of a baby at her mother’s breast bluntly states: “We are obliged to steal language.” This suggests a violent and parasitic ripping meaning from the world around us. These furry snails and rattling giraffes are hopeful offerings in the face of such voracious intellectual appetite. Dangling these cliches around our babies, one can’t help but feel a chilled sympathy with 18th-century poet Edward Young: “Born originals, how comes it to pass that we die copies?”
Behind the psychedelic, hyper-happy aesthetic there’s a shadowy chasm. On one side, the guilt and anxiety of the parent, on the other the resentment and anger of the child. For those first few mysterious months, these goggly eyed toys help sling a fuzzy bridge between us and our children.