Throughout his career, Dutch architect Ben van Berkel has designed stunning modern buildings, including the Möbius House in the Netherlands and the Singapore University of Architecture and Design. His latest project is at a much smaller scale. He has designed a children’s chair and tableware for the Italian brand Alessi.
The objects are playful, but they also carry a serious message: They’re meant to signal to children that they are equals within the family, a position that comes with some responsibilities—like civilized table manners.
All of the pieces were inspired by van Berkel’s interactions with his 5-year-old son. The tableware is a shatterproof set of plates, bowls, and cups made from melamine and bamboo. There’s also a set of silverware made from polished steel that looks exactly like adult silverware, but it’s scaled down. It has subtle twists in the handles that allow children to more easily grip and balance forks, spoons, and knives.
The set contrasts with most kids’ dinnerware on the market, which is often made from cheap plastic and looks nothing like their parents’ utensils. That was by design. For van Berkel, the dining set is not only meant to help children eat comfortably at the table, but also to suggest to them that they are an important part of the family, and they can contribute to elevating the mealtime experience. “Many kids often have separate menus and utensils, so no wonder they don’t feel like they can eat the same food adults eat, or participate in the conversation around the table,” van Berkel says.
The chair is meant to both spark children’s imagination and look stylish in the home. It’s an abstract geometric structure van Berkel cheekily dubs the “Doraff” since it resembles a giraffe or a dog, depending on how it sits on the ground. In the context of a thoughtfully designed living room or dining room, it looks just like a piece of modern art. Van Berkel was inspired by the elephant that American designers Charles and Ray Eames created in the early 1940s from molded plywood. It was intended to be a toy for Charles’ 14-year-old daughter, Lucia. Over the years, many adults have bought the elephants as decorative sculptures for their homes.
Above all, Van Berkel wanted to ensure that there wasn’t a fixed, predetermined purpose for the structure.”I wanted to play with the idea of what it really means to think something up in your mind,” van Berkel says. “A child can picture a giraffe or a dog, or some sort of fictional hybrid of the two, but in reality, they’re projecting these ideas into a three-dimensional object. It’s their imagination at work.” The Doraff can be used as a climbing toy—for imaginary rides on a giraffe or dog—but it can also be a chair, a chaise longue, a table, or really anything else. The idea is to help children think like designers about the objects around them: Any piece of furniture can be a toy, and many toys can serve a functional purpose with some creativity.