March 27, 2008

Where's Childsply When You Need It?

Robin Day's Rocking Bird Childpsly Chair, 1999, for twentytwentyone, via

For an extremely awesome-sounding collection of affordable, sustainable, kid-related design that's not even ten years old, Childsply is pretty-near invisible on the web.

Childsply was the name of a 1999, exhibition and charity auction sponsored by the British design gallery/store twentytwentyone. They invited twelve leading UK designers and firms--including folks like Michael Marriott and Michael Sodeau, Nick Crosbie, Matthew Hilton, Michael Young & Robin Day--to create "a piece of furniture for a child between one and six years old which could be manufactured from a single sheet of birch-faced plywood" [4x8 ft, according to a couple of the participants]. The results were auctioned off to benefit . Later, the British Council Design Promotion recommissioned the pieces [which, like the original set, were fabricated by Windmill Furniture] for a traveling museum exhibition.

Twentytwentyone has absolutely no mention of Childsply on their current site, nor of Childsform, the followup commission/exhibition the next year where designers were to make a kidthing out of a block of foam. And while the British Council still promotes the exhibition, there are no images, not even a comprehensive list of the participating designers. The same goes for contemporary media accounts of the event. Considering the caliber

The idea of furniture that can be built from a single sheet of plywood seems more relevant than ever, and I've got half a mind to run a DT contest for a whole new batch of Childsply-inspired designs. As the veteran designer Robin Day explained about his design--a chair, which in fact fit two on a single sheet of plywood--it's what dads do: "My mother made our clothes, and father made things for the house. I must have realised early on that everything in the home had to be thought out and made."

But that's getting ahead of the story. For now, I'm going to try to round up a comprehensive list of Childsply participants and designs.

[I inadvertently realized I'd gotten a headstart last November when I wrote about Biscuit, a collection of plywood kid furniture from Oreka Kids. That company, set up in 2000, put several of the Childsply designs into low-scale production. I've never gotten replies from emails I sent to Oreka back then, but just last month, Michael Marriott emailed to let me know that after exploring the possibility in 2003 of moving production to Morocco, Oreka closed up shop.]

The Creator
Childsply was the brainchild of twentytwentyone co-founder Simon Alderson, who identified two parental views on the kid design market: classic pieces "scaled down for children with an aesthetic eye and rich parents," and pieces that are "durable and cost-effective because the child is going to outgrow them and destroy them anyway." [Childsply was probably intended to fall into the latter category, but good plywood is not the cheapest material around, and anyway, materials are not the sole driver of cost-effectiveness.]

The Designers
Shin and Tomoko Azumi
Sebastian Bergne
Robin Day
Matthew Hilton
Inflate/Nick Crosbie
James Irvin
JAM/Lee Kew- Moss
Alex MacDonald
Michael Marriott
Michael Sodeau
Andrew Stafford
Michael Young

Is this right? The Robin & Lucienne Day monograph mentions 13 designers, but I figure they're counting the Azumis separately. The British Council exhibit says 12, as do the articles at the time. Inflate and Crosbie are mentioned separately, even though they're the same firm. MacDonald's not mentioned anywhere I can find, just in an article about a 2001 Design Museum exhibition, mentioning his "elegant stacking chairs made from a single sheet of red or white painted ply to order." Also, Childsply is not listed on his bio. So this could be the list, or it could be off by one or two designers.

[04/08 update: based on the checklist from the British Council, BOA and James Irvin were included in Childsply, and Alex MacDonald was not. Thanks to Will and his colleagues at the British Council for their kind assistance in tracking this information down.]

The Designs

Shin and Tomoko Azumi, Oreo, "a small folding table which can be easily moved by children." [via Oreka Kids]


Sebastian Bergne, Flapjack, "a shoe and coat locker, where children can learn to tie laces and record their height. Loose hooks are included." [via Oreka Kids]


BOA, Bench, H9 x W11 x L23-in. made up of layered plywood cutouts. I think BOA designs knives and/or tools & utensils now. [via BC's 04/08 update]


Robin Day, Rocking Bird, "a chair with a curved seat, supported on a robust frame which slots neatly together. In fact, so economical is his design that two chairs can be produced from a single sheet of ply." The chair was produced by twentytwentyone, where it cost £99. [image via google books, text via the independent]


Matthew Hilton, Climbing Frame, a 34x34-inch perforated structure, 22-inches deep.


Jammy Dodger, "two stepped units, that can nest inside each other for storage or work separately as seat and desk, or train and carriage." [via Oreka Kids]


[04/08 update: Originally, the Jammy Dodger was listed here as Hilton's Childsply contribution. It was actually made for Oreka, not Childsply.]

Inflate/Nick Crosbie , See Saw, a two-sided rocking seat which slots together. [added 04/08 via british council]


James Irvin, Box Bench, a long, narrow storage box with molded ply ends, H13 x W12 x L59-in.


[04/08 update via British Council. Can't seem to find any subsequent info on Irvin.

JAM/Lee Kew- Moss Micro-Environment, "a toybox you can get into and explore"; also, "JAM's design, which combines storage with play, is also constructed from a series of flat planes, although in their case without the jolly portholes and with an overtly constructivist aesthetic. In fact it's more like a piece of sculpture than a piece of furniture." As Lee put it in an email, "We (Jam) designed a multi function piece which could be used for seating , climbing, a table - or anything th childs imagination could come up with. basically lots of plywood rectangles screwed together." It was L28 x W35 x H24-in. [via the independent, JAM and Lee have since parted ways. photo added via BC, 04/08]


[04/08 update: MacDonald himself and the British Council both confirm he did not participate in Childsply.] Alex MacDonald, Child's Chair, "laminated and painted birch ply chair," is awesome, but I suspect it's not from the Childsply exhibition. It's very similar to another design MacDonald calls his 2000 Chair, and he doesn't list Childsply on his CV. []


Michael Marriott, Nice, "a stepped storage/trolley unit which could become: train, house, castle, trojan horse, desk, space rocket, racing car, and later in life, a computer station or TV & video stand." [via Oreka Kids]


Michael Sodeau "When I Grow Up I Want To Be...", a play desk and chair. Chair dimensions: H19.5 W12 L15-in. Desk: H16 W19.5 L39.5-in.


[04/08 update: thanks to Michael Sodeau for providing details and an image of his design. He also sent along info on his design for twenty/twentyone's follow-on exhibition, which involved foam design. Stay tuned for that one.]

Andrew Stafford, Alphabetti Biscotti, "a wall-mounted shelf which has removable plastic [?!] stencils in the form of letters and numbers." [via Oreka Kids,]


Michael Young, Chair, with a "more elaborate method of construction" than Day's knock-together, and "a miniaturised version of what he might create for his more sophisticated grown-up clientele." Plywood is surfaced and molded into a small chaise longue [H11 x W12 x L23-in] whose shape is related to Young's adult designs of the time. [via the independent, 04/08 update: the British Council provided the image and dimensions.]


That's it so far. Any leads? Any vintage photos? Any auction buyers? I'd love to hear from you.

Childsply []
Ply and the Family Home, The Independent, Sept 25, 1999 [findarticles]
Keep out: Jedd's Room, Apr 29, 2001 [observer/guardian]
Tots in the Hot Seat, Mar. 4, 2001 [thisislondon]
Robin & Lucienne Day: Pioneers of Modern Design [google books or amazon via dwell, which published a tiny little picture of Day's Childsply chair in their latest issue, which got this whole thing rolling. Naturally, it's not online.]
Biscuit by Oreka Kids [, previous post on DT]

[9/30/08 update: Via an awesome throwback Google index from circa 2001, I was able to dig up the British Council's missing web pages about the Childsply exhibit via the Internet Archive: Here's the main page and the discussion of all the designers. Images are broken.]


"after exploring the possibility in 2003 of moving production to Morocco, Oreka closed up shop."

Strange choice, unless Morocco has some huge CNC cut plywood industry I don't know about.

From the perspective of someone who wants to source things locally, the nice thing about using CNC cut plywood is that it isn't that much cheaper to do it overseas. CNC machines cost the same all over the world, the cost of high quality panels isn't much different, and there's very little labor involved. By the time you add overseas shipping, the total cost difference is pretty minimal.

And you should do that contest. The prize could be that you get a one-off of your design produced.

That contest would be fun. You'd be sure to get some fun entries. I'm actually headed down this path at the moment. The kid's 16 months old and walking around and I want to build some more stuff for him. I've been sketching around for a few months and have a few designs I want to try out. I want to make a table, two (maybe 4) chairs, an art station (either a scribble table with a roll of paper underneath, or a painting station with an art easel, or maybe both), a kitchen set (stove/sink/cupboard. might go with an ikea hack for this instead of building it), step stool for the bathroom. Realistically I'm never going to get these done, time being at the premium that it is at the moment. I'd be happy if I could knock out one of these for the kid.

so would the plywood be of the 4'x8' or 5'x5' variety?

[If it's birch in Europe, I'd have guessed 5x5, at least for the original. For any hypothetical contest being schemed up, I'd say it's still up in the air. -ed.]

Generic baltic birch is much more readily available in 5x5, although you do occasionally see it in 4x8. I like using Appleply or Europly, especially the prefinished varieties (the finish is UV cured and has zero VOCs), and those are 4x8. BB is a lot cheaper, probably because most of it comes from Russia now, where they are working hard to get rid of all their trees. The quality is quite variable too.

["where they are working hard to get rid of all their trees". Oops. guess that disqualifies ply from the automatically sustainable material list. Gotta remember to get FSC... -ed.]

I was interested to stumble on this article. Pleased that someone else noticed what a shame it was that this great group project never came to anything. I have since had 2 kids and couldn't get a sample of my product Flapjack out of Oreka. Interesting to see that most of these designs are still looking good. As you correctly say, cnc production is childs ply.. Perhaps it's not too late.. SB

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