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We live in a time where just about every sort of bizarre partnership flies: whimsical dress brand Alice + Olivia has a Grateful Dead collection, designer Cynthia Rowley makes ready to wear every season while creating home goods for Staples on the side, all-American basics brand J.Crew has made an attempt at creating stylish options for Band-Aid, and fashion magazine Vogue is getting into the furniture space.
So there was a bit of skepticism when Racked caught word of this news: Mattel, the parent company of brands like Barbie and American Girl has tapped interior designer Jonathan Adler as its new creative director for baby empire Fisher-Price. Designs for nursery décor, bedding, and newborn toys by the 50-year-old designer will debut this September, although the full impact of his three-year partnership will fully roll out in 2017. Adler will also be making infant apparel, which is not something Fisher-Price is known for, although it is somewhat present in the category.
While the results of such a collaboration might sound gratuitous — with the overflow of unnecessary baby products, are we seriously about to embark into a new category of designer baby merchandise? — experts in the design industry say a collaboration of this kind actually has validity to it. There might be a plethora of products out there, but many feel the baby industry simply falls flat when it comes to good design.
"I think there's something to be said for better design or a more pleasing aesthetic in the kids retail space," says Blair Koenig, the author behind the blog (and book) STFU Parents. "I've always marveled at how drastically different children's designs in the U.S. are compared to, say, Scandinavian toys, which are so much prettier and built to last. Since Adler's trademark approach is childlike and whimsical, his role makes sense to me."
"In general I don't think toy companies are smart about using color and pattern in ways that support the purpose of a toy rather than just make it look like it is cute and colorful," adds Alexandra Lange, an architecture critic at Racked's sister site, Curbed. "This happens at the high and the low end. It also drives me crazy when new brands that are supposed to be smarter or more ecological fall into the same old gendered toy patterns."
From Adler's perspective, the call for the job at Fisher-Price came with perfect timing. He tells Racked he was designing the home of a private client when he noticed that there were baby items everywhere — and they were ugly.
"It was not a good look," Adler says. "And the fact of the matter is kids toys are a part of your domestic landscape; they should be as beautiful as they can be. I think first and foremost, products should serve the brain and imagination of your kids. But they can do that while actually looking good for the parents. I'm going to crank up the chic while keeping it fun."
Adler says he will be working with Fisher-Price to upgrade patterns, motifs, and shapes of baby and infant gear — "anything from mobiles that hang over kids beds and have cute the animal iconography, to dressers that are really chic, to bouncy chairs that are going to look a lot better."
Mattel and Adler have collaborated before: In 2009, the designer created a real-life Barbie Dream House in Malibu for doll's 50th anniversary. Mark Zeller, the senior vice president of design at Fisher-Price, says bringing Adler on officially is "about elevating style but staying true to who our target customer is."
"Safety and solutions will always be critical to us, and we will always be innovating in that space, but what we also know now is that what baby products look like is really important as well," Zeller says.
Mattel is also hoping a partnership with Adler will help its sales, which have been on an ongoing decline. Over the last four years, sales of baby products, which make up Fisher-Price's primary business, fell nearly every quarterly period, according to the Wall Street Journal. Fisher-Price brought in $1.85 billion in sales in 2015, down from $2.16 billion it saw in 2011.
Zeller says the brand was attracted to Adler because of his "direction towards ‘happy chic and playful sophistication'" and that Fisher-Price has been "working on elevating design for years." If Adler can bring style to disposable items that used to be used for light and are now part of a booming category — also known as luxury candles — maybe he can turn items like pack-n-plays and high chairs into more than just eyesores parents try to keep hidden in corners.