When Lewis Carroll created Alice’s wonderland, he sent his diminutive heroine down rabbit holes and through looking glasses and in doing so created an imaginative kingdom that has lived in the mind’s eye of adults as much as children for 150 years. He captured the imagination of generations, because escaping into a world of fantasy is what most children want to do.
My children’s excitement was unbridled when I bought them a secondhand set of bunk beds for the princely sum of £70. They transformed them into a den, using some cleverly draped blankets and a few butterfly stickers. Their bedroom door remained locked during this process, and I didn’t mind being shut out, letting them escape from my demands that they brush their hair, do their homework and pick up their clothes, since I know that leaving them to their own devices is the best way to encourage their creativity.
I don’t have a fortune to spend on my children, but if I did, the ‘den’ that might have been created could have been very different. Because today’s commercially astute interior designers and construction engineers have become inspired by the idea of bringing imaginary worlds to life. There is a rapidly growing market in fantastical bedrooms, playrooms and playhouses for children. It is led, inevitably, from LA, where every other child probably sleeps in a pumpkin carriage bed.
‘If you dream it, we can create it,’ says Nino Rosella, of the Master Wishmaker, which creates bespoke interiors that are loved by adults as much as children. ‘We literally make dreams come true.’ Founded in 2011 by the architect Roger Mcintyre and the builder Sege Rosella, the company was born after a client asked for a luxury playhouse. ‘We can make anything now. If you want a playhouse as big as a mansion, made from real gold, we’ll do it,’ says Rosella.
Most projects start at 10k, but a 29-year-old client recently spent several million on a pirate hide-away called Challis Island, on a lake near Cambridge. The lake was drained in order to create the island, and then refilled. The result is an adult playground on the most preposterous scale.
The process of building fantasy worlds is lengthy and technically complex. Before a single splash of hot pink paint is slapped onto a princess carriage, or a pirate cutlass artfully arranged on the bespoke boat-shaped bed, the clients will have been extensively interviewed about their taste and hobbies. Then 3D animated computer models and technical drawings are created, and plans drawn up for lighting, access, and so on. That’s to say nothing of planning applications.
The ‘Baron’s Bunk’ comprised a hand-carved plane hovering over a bunk bed, complete with slide and fully lit, two-storey air traffic control station. The Master Wishmaker’s playhouses are more extravagant, and they’re in the process of making a two-storey tree house with cinema, hot tub and kitchen for a family in Essex. There are also plans for a 20,000 square foot tree house with ‘river’, helipad, glass-bottomed swimming pool, jungle gym and home cinema for the US luxury magazine the Robb Report.
‘There’s an element of oneupmanship at work,’ says Rosella, describing the entire street one family commissioned, with fire station, village shop, cinema and garage, complete with real cars. ‘Clients love looking through past designs, then taking them several steps further. People like to push their imagination to the extreme, creating the most bonkers world possible.’
There’s certainly something bonkers, too, about building expensive, elaborate interiors that children will soon grow out of. After all, a princess suite designed for a three-year-old girl won’t delight the world-weary 13-year-old she later becomes. It brings new definition to the term ‘disposable income’, and makes one wonder who, exactly, parents are buying for when they fork out £50k for a bedroom suite.
‘Children absolutely love our stuff, but I think parents are at their happiest seeing their crazy ideas come alive,’ says Rosella. ‘There’s no doubt this is as much for the parents as the kids.’
Less disposable, more heirloom, Dragons of Knightsbridge have been creating bespoke painted interiors for 30 years. Gwyneth Paltrow, Elton John and Madonna are fans, and they’ve recently shipped an entire bedroom to Moscow, complete with all furnishings, lighting and rugs, at a cost of over half a million pounds. There’s something so reassuring, after all, about buying into old-fashioned English style. Dragons have graced many a royal nursery. Prince George apparently has a Beatrix Potter-themed bedroom designed by them. There’s a certain melancholy in the story of the poor little rich kid who craved a real puppy of her own. The globe-trotting existence of her super-rich parents made this difficult, so instead they ordered from Dragons full sets of puppy-decorated furniture for the nursery of each of their houses around the world.
When David Cameron bought his daughter a chair painted with a rabbit outside 10 Downing Street, he and Sam may have been nostalgic for older, grander nurseries. ‘Of course people love spending money on their children, but our clients also genuinely treasure their heirlooms,’ says MD Lucinda Croft. ‘It’s not unusual for parents to bring in old pieces they owned as children to be repainted for their families. There’s a huge amount of ostentation around children’s design, but we’re really not trying to show off.’
The understatement only goes so far: one of their bestselling items is the Little Duchess upholstered cot, coming in at a cool £12,000, with French silk drapes and cut-glass diamante padding.
All this seems rather modest compared with America, where Beyoncé spent £400,000 on a solid gold Ginza Tanaka rocking horse for her baby daughter Blue Ivy. The interiors company Dahlia Designs recently created a 5,000 square foot playroom, decorated with all sorts of themes, including space, safari, aviation and princess. ‘It was wild, and we really went to town on the special effects. There was a games area with hi-tech toys that would pop up. We created something beyond most people’s wildest imaginations,’ says director Dahlia Mahmood, who runs the company from LA and Washington DC and has a (highly confidential) list of movie star clients. The playroom cost a million dollars, and took a year to complete.
‘Parents will spend everything they can to capture this moment in their child’s imagination,’ she says, only momentarily faltering when I ask her if she thinks it is good for a child to grow up in a million-dollar playroom. ‘Who am I to question how parents spend their money? And the children of very well-off clients are always very gracious, in my opinion.’
The US tendency to spare no expense when it comes to indulging children is being imported to Britain. Baby showers, if they happened here at all, used to involve a few friends getting together for tea and cake to give the expectant mum some muslin squares and a nursing bra. Today, extravagant themed parties are becoming common among the wealthy, with gifts running into tens of thousands of pounds.
Leading the field in bringing this LA trend to Britain is Gigi Brookes, whose clients are described as high-net-worth individuals. Much of their more extravagant pieces are manufactured in America, and while they can create a nursery with a budget of £5,000, many clients will be working with ten times that amount. Recent projects include a bed inside a huge dragon, a play car made from real car parts, and a navy and gold nautical nursery with a crystal ship chandelier. Their woodland-themed nursery for Leah Wood featured heavily in Hello! magazine.
‘The internet has opened up a giant look-book for parents, and we’re seeing a demand for highly creative design spilling beyond bedrooms and playhouses into special events for children,’ says Ali Lovegrove of Gigi Brookes. The company created a week-long Wild West camp for a child’s birthday party, with handmade tents painted with western themes, and an old-fashioned general store where the children could spent tokens they won on toys and sweets. No detail was overlooked, from the wicker shopping baskets to the open fire where the kids cooked marshmallows every night. ‘Our designs really help stimulate creativity, and all our clients are focused on encouraging their children’s creativity,’ says Lovegrove, without a hint of irony.
I’ll never have these sort of sums to spend on my children’s bedrooms, but it’s not just sour grapes that leaves me with the sense that the world of the imagination can’t be bought. Benign neglect, and allowing children to get thoroughly bored to encourage them to dream, can work magic. If you really want to push the boat out, read them Lewis Carroll, then drape a blanket over a bunk bed and leave them to it.