Businessweek – Baby Products Meet Smart Design

Scott Henderson couldn’t wait for his two young children to outgrow the baby toys, strollers, various bouncy seats, and other paraphernalia. A Brooklyn-based designer and former head at design consultancy Smart Design, Henderson saw his kids’ stuff as outdated, space-hogging eyesores crying out for a redesign.

“As a parent, you simply tolerate all of these primary colors and blocky shapes around the house,” says Henderson. “Why can’t baby stuff be highly functional and elegantly or cleverly designed? What about space efficiency? There’s a huge opportunity out there.”

Infant-related products are a booming market already. The most recent sales survey from the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Assn., which tracks products for babies, toddlers, and preschool-aged kids (excluding diapers, food, and apparel) indicates that retail sales have hit $7 billion this year, up from $4 billion a decade ago.

“TARGET EFFECT”. From cribs to strollers to baby monitors, more and more products in that growing market seem to have been designed with a hip look, ergonomic features, and smarter functions. And it’s not just because designers like Henderson are suddenly having children.

First there’s the Target Effect, which raised consumer expectation—if I can buy a toilet brush I’m proud to display, why can’t I find a good-looking high chair? Then there’s the classic ripple effect: The growing market is causing increased competition.

This, in turn, forces companies to differentiate their products—and turn to design to do so. The result is that industrial designers such as Henderson, and even big-brand technology companies—Philips (PHG), Intel (INTC), Delphi, among others— are exploring the baby gear market.

RESPONDING TO CONSUMERS. Henderson, who now runs two design firms, Scott Henderson and Mint, is designing a series of nursery goods for Skip Hop, a maker of diaper bags and stroller accessories seeking to expand its line. One of the first three products is a lazy Susan-style bottle-drying rack, a more space-efficient take on the standard sink-side accessory. The rack includes an integrated caddy for a bottle brush that will make it easier to thoroughly clean the bottles.

Henderson also remade a modern crib-side diaper caddy in bright color combinations such as turquoise and lime, and a tiered holder for store-bought baby-food jars. The products aim to save space and blend better into the homes of hip, design-conscious parents who dislike the generic, hard-edged and cartoonish baby gear that dominates the market. All three will hit stores in September, 2006.

Targeting a similar consumer, Design Within Reach, the national chain of modern furniture and housewares, recently launched a kid-focused sub-brand, DWR Jax. The line is a direct response to complaints that traditional children’s goods didn’t integrate with modernist homes.

SAFETY FIRST. Another sign of the times: Chic children’s furniture was debuted at this year’s top trendsetting trade shows for home furnishings: the Salone del Mobile in Milan, Italy, in April, and the 2006 International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York in May. Among them was award-winning designer Yves Béhar’s Calla—a high chair for Fleurville.

But this new approach to baby gear is about more than style. Much of the thinking focuses on adding high-tech function and improving safety, and several tech companies and consultancies are getting involved.

In September, Philips, for example, will release two baby monitors with high-quality audio. Next year, Delphi plans to market a gadget with embedded sensors that detect whether a baby seat has been inserted correctly in a car and signals a warning if it hasn’t. Delphi is also working on a crib device that tracks an infant’s motion and breathing patterns and alerts parents if either is amiss.

WIRED BABY. And Intel Research has been experimenting with crib-surveillance systems that synch with PCs so that, in the case of sickness, parents can archive and print ongoing logs of their child’s behavior for a doctor to review.

“Sensors and computer chips are getting cheaper,” says Luke Hughes, director of research at Accenture Technology Labs (ACN) in Palo Alto, Calif., when asked why tech companies might be looking to the baby-device market. In other words, as tech becomes less expensive for designers and manufacturers, it can be incorporated into lower-margin goods. Moreover, such high-tech gear will appeal to the coming generations of tech-savvy parents.

Hughes spearheaded the development of a prototype crib featuring toys that can be wirelessly controlled by parents sending signals over the Web, as well as two-way Webcams. The crib was on view at last year’s Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Assn.’s annual conference.

GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE? “The trend toward more advanced baby-gear design is the result of a confluence of trends, including cheaper tech as well as social networking,” Hughes says.

While the high-tech crib experiments by Accenture Technology Labs and Intel Research aren’t likely to be released as commercial products any time soon, they represent what could be the future of baby gear. To compete on an increasingly crowded playing field, makers of infant furniture and gadgets will have to look beyond sophisticated forms and add sophisticated functions.


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