When we think of great Scandinavian design, we tend to imagine the minimalist, functional furniture from post-war designers like Arne Jakobson, creator of the iconic Egg Chair, or Eero Aarnio, who made the award-winning Screw Table. But one of the most influential Swedish designers of the period had no interest in making furniture for adults. Instead, he focused on an underserved demographic: babies.
In 1961, Björn Jakobson launched BabyBjörn, a Stockholm-based design firm that created a bouncer chair for infants. In the years since, the company has become known for its iconic baby carrier, which has been used by 45 million babies around the world. Sixty years after it first hit the market, the company is releasing archival photos of the products it has created over the years, illustrating how Jakobson brought thoughtful design to members of society few designers were thinking about. In doing so, he changed the landscape of baby products, while building a multimillion-dollar brand available in 50 countries—but not without some controversy.
Björn and the war babies
Jakobson was born in 1934 in Stockholm, Sweden, and came of age in the midst of World War Two. At the time, families from around war-torn Europe were sending their babies and young children to Sweden in an effort to keep them safe. Jakobson spent his teenage years helping to look after them. “Sweden was neutral during the war,” says Annika Sander-Löfmark, BabyBjörn’s head of communications, who has been with the company for 25 years and continues to speak with Jakobson regularly. “There were a lot of war children in the country and Bjorn did a lot of babysitting.”
In 1960, Jakobson took a tour of the the U.S. and was intrigued by how the baby products were slightly different from those he had seen while babysitting in Sweden. He wondered if one reason parenthood was so taxing was that parents had no choice but to carry their infants when they weren’t lying down. It gave him an idea for an entirely new device: Jakobson imagined a bouncy chair that would allow parents to safely strap their infant into a seated position, so they could do other tasks nearby. “In the ’60s, people thought that babies were just supposed to lie on their backs in their crib or in a pram,” says Sander-Löfmark. “So this was a revolutionary product at the time.”
When Jakobson returned to Sweden, he started prototyping such a bouncer and cycling around Stockholm looking for manufacturers to create it. But the bigger challenge was convincing people that the chair was safe for babies. He found medical experts and pediatricians to confirm that it didn’t harm babies to sit up; in fact, some argued that it could help them develop motor skills. (Today, the pediatric community generally considers these bouncer chairs safe, as long as the child doesn’t fall asleep in them.) When babies get older, the upright position allows them to see what’s going on around them, so they don’t get bored.
And so, in 1961, BabyBjörn was born. Jakobson cofounded the company with his sister-in-law Elsa Jakobson, who had five sons. Together, they discussed product development and prototyped new contraptions. And in 1962, at a dance, he met Lillemor Alm, a textile designer who had recently graduated from a Swedish art school. They married a few months later, and she quickly became a co-founder. Given her background, she was integral in influencing the aesthetics of the brand.
While many baby products on the market at the time (and indeed, today) were designed to appeal to the baby, Lillemor had the insight that newborns and infants were too young to care about aesthetics. So these products needed to appeal to the tastes of the parents, who would be bringing the products into their home. “For years, baby products had a distinct look, with a particular ‘baby’ colors and patterns like stripes and polka dots,” says Dr. Daniel Cook, chair of the department of childhood studies at Rutgers University and author of The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer. “BabyBjörn’s neutral color palette helped people project that they were a particular kind of parent: One that is stylish and affluent.”
Lillemor designed a visual identity that still informs BabyBjörn’s designs today, one grounded in Scandinavian minimalism. “We work on making products that are beautifully clean and simple, combining functionality and safety,” says Anna Björk, the company’s head of design. “We also find inspiration from nature, which is why all of our color palettes are grounded in colors found in the natural world.”
The iconic baby carrier
With the support of pediatricians, BabyBjörn’s bouncer took off in Sweden. A couple years after it launched, the company was selling 8,000 units monthly, which was significant since only 10,000 babies were born in Sweden every month. That’s when Jakobson decided that if his company was to grow, he needed to expand beyond his home country. BabyBjörn’s partnered with distributors throughout Scandinavia, Europe, and the U.S. Over the next decade, Jakobson and his team developed an inflatable changing mat, so parents could change their babies’ diaper on the go, along with a plastic bib that contained a ledge to catch food that didn’t make it into the baby’s mouth. (It’s remains one of the brand’s best-known products today.)
But the real breakthrough came in the early 1970s, when Jakobson began working on a baby carrier. Over the years, he had stayed in close contact with medical experts, including a team of scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Cleveland. During this period, one big insight in the pediatric community was that it was good for parents to hold babies close to their bodies. “There was a time when people thought that when parents held their baby too much, they would ‘spoil’ it,” says Dr. Melissa Whitson, professor of psychology at the University of New Haven, who studies childhood. “In the 1960s, when babies were born in a hospital, they would be put in a nursery where they wouldn’t have much contact with their parents. Then, research began to show that closeness to parents is important for attachment, particularly when you’re dealing with newborns and infants. Their cortisol levels [or stress hormones] go down when they’re with their parents.”
Thanks to these new insights, parents were eager to find ways to bond with their children. In the U.S., a nurse named Ann Moore, who had spent time in Africa, observed that mothers there carried their babies on fabric slings. In 1969, she launched a version of this baby carrier in the U.S., calling it a Snugli. Jakobson was inspired by this product but wanted to tweak the design. He created a carrier with straps and buckles that made it easier for parents to put the baby in; he also made it possible to carry the baby in different ways, facing forwards and backwards, or on the parent’s back. “The development of baby carriers was a positive development,” says Whitson. “It gave parents a way to cultivate closeness with their babies.”
After many iterations, the company launched its first baby carrier in 1973, calling it “Close to Heart.” It was an instant hit, selling 10,000 units a month throughout Europe. Sander-Löfmark believes the success of the product had a lot to do with the fact that it was easy to use for Western parents who had no experience with baby-carrying. The secure closures gave them the confidence that they wouldn’t accidentally drop the baby. The carrier launched in the U.S. market in 1982 and by the early ’90s, the brand was selling hundreds of thousands a year in the country, transforming it into a household name.
Over the years, there has been some controversy around the concept of baby carriers. As recently as this week, someone argued in Today’s Parent that Western companies that sell baby-carrying devices don’t adequately credit the African, Asian, and indigenous cultures that originally developed these techniques, and often come dangerously close to cultural appropriation. Sander-Löfmark says BabyBjörn’s goal was to help consumers in Europe and the rest of the world achieve the closeness with their babies that pediatricians were advocating for. “Babywearing is a tradition as old as mankind and different cultures have always had their traditions,” she says. “The design challenge was to find an easy solution that would work for both mothers and fathers.”
Meanwhile, some pediatricians have asserted that carrying a baby in a carrier, such as a BabyBjörn, for extended periods of time during the first six months of life can cause hip dysplasia, a condition where their hip joint gets dislocated. On the other hand, they argued that cloth baby wraps, which are widely used in Asia and Africa, generally promote the ideal position for the baby’s development. In response, Sander-Löfmark says BabyBjörn is now a research partner with the Hip Dysplasia Institute, which aims to prevent this condition. She says the company also continues to tweak the design to align with the current science, such as positioning infants’ hips so they spread apart, which promotes natural hip development.
The Björnification of American dads
As an involved father, Jakobson wasn’t just interested in creating products that could help parents; he wanted to use the brand to encourage other fathers to be active in caring for their babies. The company made a point to frequently feature fathers taking care of their babies in advertisements. In 1965, for instance, when many people believed childcare was a woman’s job, a BabyBjörn ad featured Jakobson himself changing his child’s diaper while wearing a white shirt and a tie. When the baby carrier came out, many ads featured fathers wearing wearing their babies.
Whitson says that portraying fathers in caregiving roles during the ’60s was radical, considering that even today, a lot of marketing around baby products continues to be targeted at women. She points out that 60 years after BabyBjörn was founded, even as women make up the majority of the workforce, the notion that women should be responsible for raising children continues to hold them back. “Even in this pandemic, it was overwhelmingly mothers who had to give up their jobs or make more sacrifices with their career,” says Whitson. “In the field of child development, we talk a lot about how marketing influences social norms for both good and ill. Ads where both men and women are represented in caregiving roles can convince people that fathers’ caring for children is not just acceptable, but something to strive for.”
Cook also points out that Sweden is much more egalitarian than the United States when it comes to parenting. In 1974, the country passed a law that allowed both mothers and fathers to take parental leave. Meanwhile, the United States still doesn’t have a federal law that gives new mothers time off after giving birth. As a result, in the United States, BabyBjörn products came to represent more progressive approach to parenting. “As a brand, BabyBjörn is clearly Scandinavian,” Cook says. “Having fathers in those ads denoted a particular cultural approach to parenting, one that is more egalitarian.”
Sander-Löfmark says this marketing hasn’t been popular everywhere. According to company lore, when Lillemor insisted on having ads featuring fathers in France in the ’70s, ad executives dismissed her. And when ads featuring dads launched in Asia in the 1980s and 1990s, Sander-Löfmark says they didn’t resonate with consumers in focus groups. But BabyBjörn has continued to push this message. In 2017, BabyBjörn launched an entire collection of baby carriers inspired by fathers, and featured stories from dads around the world sharing their experiences raising their young children.
Lillemor believed that good design could also entice more fathers to use the product, so she created carriers in colors and patterns that appealed to male aesthetic sensibilities. In 1994, for instance, she insisted on making a black baby carrier, even though black was very rarely used in baby products, because she believed fathers would be more inclined to use it. She was right: The color was popular, eventually outselling other colors. It continues to be a best-seller today. “The fact that the colors were meant to appeal to parents made the products an extension of the their own personal style,” says Cook.
American men have been slower than their Nordic counterparts to step up when it comes to raising their children, Cook argues. But a new kind of American fatherhood is emerging, particularly with millennial men. And it’s partly thanks to the fact that brands like BabyBjörn presented an alternative model of parenthood. “Part of the negotiation within this BabyBjörn imagery is that men in these images do not appear to be emasculated,” says Cook. “The men in these images are strong and masculine. Men who decide to use the baby carrier are marking themselves as a new kind of enlightened father.”