I love being in the U.S. visiting my family, and I am so incredibly grateful to finally be flying above the turbulence of years of cultural confusion. I am now fully at home in both countries.  It’s wonderful to be able to drop into both cultures and participate fully, while still having the gift of objective observance.

One of the things that is fun to observe now when I’m in the U.S. is the design aesthetic in general, but, as a new mom, I’ve been especially conscious of how baby products are designed. There’s a great TED talk from Sebastian Deterding about what design tells us about our values and life philosophy, and I thought it would be fun to try applying his thoughts to the overdesigned high chair that we’re using while staying in the U.S.

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These are the actual product details listed on Amazon of the Fisher-Price Rainforest Healthy Care High Chair.

Food or play, Fisher-Price has a solution. Keep baby occupied while you prepare a meal or clean up with this Rainforest Healthy Care high chair. The chair’s interactive jungle toys attach to the chair to provide safe, active fun.

  • Removable rainforest toy features music, sounds and lights.
  • Seven height settings provide a perfect fit at the dining table.
  • Pad and straps come off for easy cleaning.
  • Wheeled base allows smooth movement around your home.
  • Folding design stows away conveniently.
  • Details:
    • Includes: chair, rainforest toy, tiger toy, pad, tray & tray insert
    • 44″H x 34″W x 23″D
    • Maximum weight capacity: 50 lbs.
    • Tray insert: dishwasher safe
    • Pad: machine wash
    • Requires 3 “AA” batteries (not included)
    • Some assembly required

Whoa! Batteries? Machine-washable? Music, sounds and lights? Are we at the circus, or eating dinner? To compare, I checked out the details about the IKEA high chair we use at home:

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There was just a picture – no product details, probably because it’s a $20 plastic high chair whose functions are self-explanatory.

This is fascinating. In the Fisher Price world, amenities represent the good life, and seven height settings, batteries, music, sounds and lights in a high chair make life easier for parents. In my world, there’s enough going on without the additional burden of high chair maintenance. My version of the good life means making healthy, satisfying meals from scratch and creating a calm environment where my toddler can focus on the textures and tastes of the food.

What do these differences tell us about cultural expectations of amenities, entertainment and comfort during dinner? Is the fisher price chair the baby version of the easy-chair, complete with leg rest and cupholder? What does it say about what adults think children need? To be honest, the rainforest chair is pretty cumbersome in practice. The removable tray can actually fall off while the baby is sitting in the chair (if you haven’t fastened it correctly, which is hard when you have the baby in one hand…) The padded cushion and recline function seem completely unnecessary and it’s not fun to wipe smashed blueberries off of it, and the tray has lots of little grooves and pockets on the underside that are hard to clean. The rolling function works if you have a clear space with no mats or door thresholds. In general, there is a whole lot of overdesign going on here.

As a fun experiment, I went to a popular online children’s shop in Sweden: www.jollyroom.se and in the search function I typed in “matstol” which means high chair. Almost all designs are scaled back, and seem to lack amenities other than basic functions (no cupholders here!).

Then I did a search for high chairs on toysRus.com. Overall, the results look different. Seat-backs are broader and rounder, and there seems to be more focus on making the chair mobile and height-adjustable.

The most fascinating part of this is really how culture and aesthetic inform the starting point for design – in this case high chairs for babies. When a designer sits down to draw the chair, where does she start? where do the ideas and inspiration come from? Obviously, I don’t know these answers, but it’s clear that cultural preferences play a role.

People (Swedish people) used to ask me how the U.S. and Sweden were different, and to that vast, multilayered question, I can now at least say that the high chairs don’t look the same.