If you look around your living space, there’s a good chance that all the furniture in it is designed for adult use and comfort. This is fine, of course, if you’re an adult. But not all people can easily use full-size household objects. With the youngest of those in mind, the New York–based design gallery Nalata Nalata’s upcoming exhibition, “Starter Chair” (May 14–22), celebrates furniture that was lovingly made on a different scale—one specifically for children.
The show celebrates the beginning of a child’s physical independence: the moment when they’re able to hold their bodies up, and can start exploring the world around them on their own terms. Featuring 25 handmade chairs designed by an array of American and Japanese designers—including one by Nalata Nalata’s married co-founders, Stevenson Aung and Angélique Chmielewski-Aung—alongside pieces commissioned by the gallery, each sculptural, considered form combines child-focused features with lasting, high-quality materials.
Take, for instance, the Kinoe Kids Chair, by Japanese artist and furniture designer Ibuki Kaiyama. Featuring a seat made of chestnut with spindles and legs of beech, the chair’s top rail consists of a small branch of sugi wood from the Japanese conifer with elegant, fanned foliage. The small branches, a byproduct of the country’s forest management system, typically don’t lend themselves to larger pieces of furniture. But their diminutive size is perfect for use as the crowning piece of the chair, connecting all who touch it to the natural beauty of its materials.
The Toddler Chair—created by Ryo Kashiwazaki, founder of the Japanese footwear and design label Hender Scheme—also incorporates repurposed items. A discarded, traditional Japanese kindergarten chair forms its frame, and the seat, backrest, and feet have been reupholstered with raw vegetable-tanned leather. This material, a Hender Scheme signature, handsomely ages with use, forming a visual record of the person who uses it.
Aung and Chmielewski’s Keepsake Kids Chair draws on their own childhood experiences. Featuring a small storage space at the bottom—which is mounted on a child-safe, soft-close magnetic hinge to prevent accidents involving tiny fingers—the white oak seat is a place for stashing prized items such as coloring books, crayons, and stuffed animals. Inspired by the designers’ memories of storing sheet music in piano benches, the chair offers its user the opportunity to claim a personal space of their own.
Though “Starter Chair” was originally planned for the 2020 iteration of the NYCxDesign festival, pandemic-related delays gave Nalata Nalata’s co-founders a chance to reflect on the exhibition’s furniture, and on how the lives of the users it was created for were disrupted in the midst of Covid-19. As an acknowledgment of this interruption, the gallery will randomly select—via a free raffle available to those who visit the presentation—a number of children who were born between 2020 and 2022, and give each of them a chair from the show, personalized with an engraving of their names and birthdates. (Winners will be announced at the end of the exhibition.) Through this effort, Aung and Chmielewski seek to build a sense of community among the youngsters, and to provide them with an enduring, functional symbol of growing up in a moment when care and generosity regularly overcame uncertainty.
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