Above: A view into a nursery by Marea Clark in Diablo, California, with scalloped valances and taupe curtains over gold oak cribs.
At the risk of offending a flotilla of momfluencers, I’ll say it: Having an aesthetically flawless nursery does not matter. Not to the baby, at least. “We have to remember when we design these rooms that we’re human animals,” says New York designer and mother of three Celerie Kemble. “And the less perfect an environment, the more tolerant and flexible the child. Probably.”
To be clear, Kemble nurseries are fantastical visions that could have been dreamed up by Ludwig Bemelmans himself. But she tries to pare them back as much as possible. “The people who spent four months of their pregnancy buying everything they’re supposed to buy and getting lists from friends, I think they just end up with a wretched child,” she says. “It can’t sleep in daylight. A cold baby wipe on its butt and the night’s over!”
Not that there isn’t plenty to aspire to. A nursery is part of your child’s entrée into the wider world, so a whiff of fabulousness is to be encouraged. One key, designers say, is to splurge on the things that will last. New York designer Rodney Lawrence recently sheathed the room of an Upper East Side firstborn in a silver-leaf de Gournay wallcovering bursting with mauve, pale lavender, and plum cherry blossoms. Once the crib—in this case, a brushed brass and shagreen piece from Kifu Paris—and other accoutrements are gone, you have “a beautiful wallcovering in a room that you can convert back to something else, or it can go to the next stage in the child’s life.”
Designer Thomas Jayne likewise urges clients to invest in grown-up furniture pieces that can mature with their child rather than throwaway options. Appropriately bolted to the wall and topped with a changing pad, a Louis Philippe burl-walnut chest can function as a changing table, then easily transition back. In lieu of a bulbous glider, a storied rocking chair “gives some soul to the room.” Jayne himself grew up with a lithograph by Grant Wood in his childhood bedroom that’s now proudly displayed in his SoHo loft, and he always suggests that his clients invest in one piece of art that can be toted along with their kid through life: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive, but it’s best if it’s not overtly juvenile.”
When he was designing the nurseries for his two children, Atlanta designer Vern Yip opted for choices that would stand the test of time, including antiques culled from trips abroad (like an 18th-century lamb from a Nativity set bought in Barcelona) and paintings that he and his husband commissioned from classically trained artist James Way. More than a decade later, all their choices have held up. “The only difference is, there are no longer cribs,” he says.
Above all, safety is paramount in a nursery. A sense of uncluttered spaciousness also helps—for the child and also for parents during those brutal 2 a.m. feedings. “Make it a nice environment for weird hours,” Kemble says. “A baby is in a state of larval ignorance for the first couple of years, and then all they really want by ages two and three is space. The more you dazzle them with sophisticated toys when they’re little, the greater the turnip you’re going to raise.”
When my own son, Guy, was born in 2020, there was a lot of freshman-year upheaval for my husband and me to conquer on little sleep: diapering, breastfeeding, swaddling. The one thing we could control with a surgeon’s precision was his nursery, where we hung a wallpaper panel of the Virginia countryside behind his blond wood crib and trotted out handmade toy sheep from Minnesota, a holdover from my own childhood. As soon as Guy could form a coherent sentence, however, he asked me to take the wall panel down—he didn’t like its toothy horse and thought it would bite him in his sleep. Now that he’s a toddler, we’ll never have that sense of control we thought we had when we welcomed him into the nursery. His cuteness, though, is guaranteed to remain.
This story originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE