This British-based company brings innovative Italian children’s furniture to the UK – transforming public spaces and family homes around the country.
atthew Giaretta was a primary school teacher and a father to two young children when a trip to Italy altered the course of his working life. “I went to see the world-renowned schools for young children at Reggio Emilia, as part of my professional development. As a teacher, I already had some understanding and experience of how children play, how they interact, and how a classroom works. What fascinated me about the Reggio school system was the research that underpinned the design of their spaces.”
Matthew was so impressed by the way that the interiors he saw in Italy were designed for children, that he wanted to bring the ideas back to the UK. “Attention to good design can have a profound influence on the experiences of children. In the UK, we see this kind of attention – to colour, lighting, furnishings, function and movement – in adult spaces, but there is still very little understanding and regard given to research about the design of children’s spaces. At Reggio Emilia they had decades of research examining how material, organisational and sensory qualities affect a child’s development and play.”
“Children deserve to have beautiful, coherent spaces, full of complexity and delight. Instead, they frequently have cheap, plastic, unappealing – and often unsustainable – spaces, lacking in research, and lacking in possibilities.”
Matthew started working with PLAY+, an Italian company that makes children’s furniture which is based on the research and principles of the pioneering Reggio approach to education, with the aim of bringing their products and design to the UK. He worked first with a UK based early years education charity, and from there became involved in an impressively high-profile series of projects. “In 2007, I organised a conference on design for children at the Southbank Centre, and an exhibition about the PLAY+soft design project with the V&A Museum of Childhood in London.”
Matthew then went on, with his own company, Feelgood Designs, to work on some big public space design projects with PLAY+, including Heathrow Terminal Five, Westfield White City and London Zoo.
In addition to these large public projects, Feelgood Designs has also worked on spaces in schools and private houses. As far as Matthew is concerned, it’s about making better spaces for children – whatever the context. “The diversity of the projects is one of the most enjoyable things about the business. It’s always different. One project may be a shopping centre, another a primary school, the next a small project for a family home. We just want to give every customer our care and attention, and to offer the best advice for their particular situation.”
Matthew is keen to establish the difference between what Feelgood offers, and the scaled-down versions of adult designs that children are more usually given. “PLAY+ is children’s furniture that fits with adult furniture. It’s not about making something that’s childlike, or a simplified idea of what an adult thinks a child wants. It’s stylish, contemporary and modern, and I think it’s furniture that adults would like to have around. It’s also of a scale that means adults can use the furniture too, and play with their children – in fact, it encourages this interaction. That’s our aim, and it’s what we have in our own home.”
The range of furniture is dominated by visually arresting, colour-blocked pieces which can be moved around and arranged in different ways – and, yes, even as an adult you can see that it would be tempting to play with, and on, them. The pieces are made to order in Italy. “This means that we can make adaptations to suit different customers,” explains Matthew. “We’ve also developed our own wipe-clean fabric, containing no PVC and no rubber latex. It’s low maintenance, beautiful and tactile.”
Matthew, whose older children are now 20 and 17, also has a 15 month old son. Although his obvious passion for what he does means that he works long hours, running his own company does enable Matthew to see more of his family. “Honestly, I probably work too much. But, at the same time, I’m very fortunate that I can do a lot of my work from home. I’m lucky to be able to be around the house much of the time, so that I don’t miss our youngest son growing up – and, of course, he’s also a testing ground for our furniture, putting everything through its paces.”
As far as the older members of the family are concerned, Feelgood is becoming a proper family business. “My older children are now working with me – bringing their youthful perspectives, values and new ideas. My wife works with me too, and I often have our toddler playing on the floor around my feet as I work at a computer.”
In terms of the future, being committed to creating spaces for children which are based on ongoing research into children’s needs and development, means that the design journey never ends. “We are developing and bringing out new products and custom-made furniture all the time. We’re really proud, for example, of our latest range of hard furniture, which is just going into our first school projects.”
And, thanks to the internet, Feelgood have branched out across the Atlantic, working on kindergarten projects in Kansas City, New Jersey and New York.
Whether it’s in the UK, or further afield, the most important thing for Matthew will always be that the designs enhance children’s experiences. “Children bring our furniture to life when they use it – this is always our best advertisement. It’s all about children’s imagination and interpretations. The most rewarding part of my job is seeing the way in which our furniture transforms spaces and lives. We want to raise the profile and the value placed on good design for children. Children deserve beauty.”