Sophisticated enough for grown-ups, sturdy enough for kids

When Sandra Meyer redecorated her family's Bethesda, Md., living room four years ago, she reupholstered the sofa in a creamy celadon-and-white silk blend. The fabric was expensive and delicate, but she loved it enough to take her chances.

The delivery crew was barely out the door when her 4 year old swiped a red marker across the seat.

That scenario is a nightmare shared by many parents who crave sophistication and style but believe their vision is incompatible with children and pets. They may idealize a home dressed in Farrow Ball rather than Dora and Diego, but they don't want to invest in furniture and fabrics when spilled juice and muddy paws are just a mishap away.

For a fortunate few, there is little need to compromise. Consider, for example, Gwyneth Paltrow. Last year, House Garden magazine featured the actress and her family's pristine and "sneaker-friendly" summer home in the Hamptons, which included a designer chandelier, custom-made chairs and white carpet in her daughter's bedroom. (Besides fleeting glimpses of Paltrow herself, there was not a sign of life in the whole place.)

In the real world, things are never that flawless.

Some parents invest in design help and good-quality furnishings, then declare certain rooms off-limits to kids and pets. Some stick strictly with less-pricey pieces from big-box stores such as Ikea or Target. Others bide their time with parental hand-me-downs and college leftovers, deferring design until after the children have grown and gone.

That last choice is particularly incomprehensible to Sara Costello, creative director for Domino magazine and mother of two. "It's like the inmates have taken over the prison and you're a prisoner among them," she says.

There is a middle ground, design professionals insist. Stacey White and husband Paul de la Croix-Vaubois of Bethesda, Md., are a good example.

The couple have three young children, ages 8, 6 and 3, and an "almost house-trained" 5-month-old puppy. But after years of moving around and living abroad while working for the United Nations, they wanted a grown-up home.

"We love our children to death," White says, "but we wanted to buy what we liked and have an adult house. I didn't want things I really didn't like because, at the end of the day, the cost is the cost, and you want to really love what you have."

They asked Meyer, co-owner of the Bethesda home furnishings store Ella Scott Design, for help. With her encouragement they chose pale fabrics and carpeting for the living room, but with patterns to hide stains and grime. In the dining room they used faux leather and replaceable FLOR carpet tiles. For the family room, the couple opted for commercial-grade upholstery and stain-resistant carpeting and decided to do without a coffee table to leave room for the kids to play.

They splurged on designer fabric for two living room armchairs, but only on the front of the chairs; a less-expensive and sturdier material covers the chair backs, so if there's a spill, only the front will need recovering. A pricey silk was used for dining room window treatments, but in tailored Roman shades that stay out of reach of little hands.

Having adult yet child-friendly spaces is also important to Catrin Morris-Miller, mother of two daughters, ages 2 and 5 months. She and her husband furnished their D.C. home with a mix of comfy, stain-resistant pieces and upholstered antiques, including a vintage sofa, a pair of bergere armchairs and a Swedish chair with a white linen seat. No room is off-limits, but food and drink (except water) are restricted to just a few areas.

"My life is full of Play-Doh and paint and applesauce," Morris-Miller says. "I wanted to have a retreat from the pink, the bright colors and the functional. Everything with kids is so functional ... and there's a tendency to let that completely engulf your style. We wanted a retreat from that: grown-up colors, furniture and style."

Megan Samuels, a designer and blogger in Manhattan Beach, Calif., opted for a more casual, yet no less elegant, feel for her family's beach bungalow. She said slipcovers are her key to maintaining a stylish interior with two children and three dogs. (Not the loose-fitting, shabby-chic styles of the early 1990s, she points out, but the more modern, fitted versions with straight, tight pleats &

and, please, no ruffles.) To keep the white covers fresh between washings, she has a bleach pen on hand for treating spills and stains.

Samuels fills her small house with light colors, simple window treatments, durable sisal carpets and a mix of nice pieces and inexpensive finds from eBay.

Designers agree that good-quality furnishings from secondhand resources that can be refinished and recovered over time are a better investment than flimsy new pieces.

Buying disposable furniture doesn't make sense financially and is bad for the environment, says Springfield, Va., designer Shanon Munn. "You'll probably want to freshen things up when the kids leave anyway, so buy quality, timeless pieces and refresh them" when the nest is empty.

Munn uses an antique pine kitchen island as a changing table in her daughter's room. "I can always put it into an office if my daughter doesn't like it later," she says.

Another key to living successfully with kids, pets and fine design is to set ground rules. All the refinishing, recovering, fabric treating and patterned rugs won't help a home stand up to routine abuse. Design pros and child-development experts say that establishing basic guidelines &

such as no eating in the living room, no jumping on the couch &

is good for the furniture and for the children.

A child-centered environment, says William Gormley, co-director of Georgetown University's Center for Research on Children in the United States, "sends the message that children matter and acknowledges that children will be children. It has advantages, but it also has the disadvantage of not beginning to teach children the importance of boundaries. There are other ways to ensure a child-friendly and child-focused environment than to give them free rein in every room of the house."

Another important thing parents and pet owners can do: relax. Accidents will happen when children and animals are involved, no matter how prepared you are, so it's best to accept that reality and move on. (And, Meyer points out, more often than not adults &

not children &

are to blame for the blunders: "Your friend is just as likely to spill a glass of wine on (the furniture) as your kid is to draw on it.")

That easygoing attitude helps Meyer with her own challenges of living stylishly with children, including the sofa-as-art episode.

"Did I cry? Yeah, but now I don't even see it anymore," she says. She simply flipped the sofa cushion over to hide the red mark. And a year later, when another stain appeared, she hid that one under a throw. "I use what I love, regardless. Nothing stays perfect."

Costello takes a similar philosophical approach. "Truly, the places that are the most comfortable are a little messy, everything isn't perfect and there are signs of real life," she says. "What's more stylish than that?"

Share This Story