My earliest memory is of wallpaper.
It was a pretty blueberry motif on a cream ground, and I very clearly remember watching the shadows chase along the little blueberries as I was put down for my afternoon nap, muted light coming through the slats of the shades, the echoey thrum of New York City traffic lulling me to sleep. I have never known my parents to paper another room since, but perhaps it is no coincidence that today, almost every room of my own apartment is covered in exuberantly patterned wallpaper.
Like most other decisions we make for a baby, the way we decorate their small first world is less about offering us control than it is about allowing us the illusion of control. It is a place where we can project our hopes and wishes, and even our first lessons in aesthetics. “Not much else matters to the child except lots of love,” says ELLE Decor A-List designer and parent Jeffrey Bilhuber. “But the nursery can matter to the parents if they want it to.” What was in past eras a treacly separate realm is now a part of the home, and children’s spaces can today provide sophistication as well as sweetness.
“The fact that you are imposing your taste on a child from the minute they’re born is big,” says Charles Curkin, my ED editor, who recently chronicled building his daughter Nell’s nursery. In his case, this involved not just some beautiful design, but the same print of Karel Appel’s Clown d’Amsterdam that his father had hung over his own crib when Curkin was a baby, and to which he credits his love of the CoBrA art movement. (“It’s a beautiful painting—not creepy! Plus, she’ll never be scared of clowns.”)
Designer Matilda Goad has bright memories of her childhood cottage: “With sloping ceilings and chintz everywhere, my room was even wallpapered on the ceiling,” she says. The nursery she planned for her daughter, Domino Dakota, combines nostalgic touches with cheerful improvisation, like a bookshelf that doubles as a changing table.
When it was time to plan a nursery for our baby, Hal, I had a few notions in mind. Because this room was, in fact, a glorified closet, it needed to be streamlined. I pored over vintage Airstream interiors and Deco utility apartments full of sleek built-ins. Looking back, I may have hoped to tuck the whole enterprise away as easily as the changing table I designed in the style of a Murphy bed.
I also loved the idea of giving our son a magical realm of his own. Obviously, this would require wallpaper. The paper I found—a reissued 1930s print from Bradbury & Bradbury—is anything but neutral: It has a shepherdess, a sinister lamb, a monkey trailing a long scarf, and giant mosquitoes. Oh, and it’s supposedly 3D. After it was installed, in February, I briefly wondered whether I’d gone too far. Then COVID-19 happened, and everything changed. The tiny nursery became an oasis of calm. In the days before Hal was born in early April, I found myself sitting in his room for hours.
Of course, nothing turned out quite how I imagined: We barely use the nifty flip-up changing table, the baby isn’t neatly tucked away at cocktail hour or whatever, and we wouldn’t want him to be. Like the other new parents I spoke to, we’ll have to wait to “complete” our nursery until after the virus. And maybe we never will—a lesson in itself.
But every time we put Hal down in his little room and he catches sight of the shepherdess and the sneering lamb, he smiles a wide, conspiratorial smile. He feels safe. Which is all I could have asked for.
This story originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE
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