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Your Home: The Guide

How to kid- and pet-proof your home

The furnishings, finishes, and layouts that will let your wild things be wild.

Shaw Nielsen

This article is featured in this Sunday’s issue of the Globe Magazine.

Nothing brings you down quite like muddy paw prints skipping across your new B&B Italia couch or a sippy-cup full of milk on that gorgeous hand-knotted Persian rug. But does having pets and children mean you have to give up good design? “Most certainly not,” says Alicia Ventura, an interior designer at Su Casa Designs in Newton. “You just need to take into consideration who you’re designing for and work around that. You need to adapt a little.” If you choose the right products, layout, and fabrics, it is possible to kid- and pet-proof — or at least kid- and pet-protect — your house and still feel comfortable there as an adult.

“Balance is really the name of the game,” says Kate Maloney Albiani of Kate Maloney Interior Design in Cambridge. “If you want to let your kids go crazy in the family room, then make it 100 percent kid friendly. But in the master bedroom, I don’t know, can’t you have a moment where you can have a chandelier if you want to? Every room should be family friendly, but you just have to be selective where your moments are.” Once the kids go to bed, moms and dads need a soothing retreat, Maloney Albiani points out — a place to decompress after a day filled with Legos and Little Tikes play kitchens. “A place,” she says, “where you’re like, ‘Yes, I’m still an adult. I love my bedroom’ or ‘Gosh, those drapes are gorgeous.’ ” That said, Maloney Albiani, who has a 11-month-old daughter, notes that you have to expect and tolerate mishaps. “If the sofa cushion gets a little dirty, flip it over.” But don’t deprive yourself of a well-curated house. “I say go for it,” she concludes. “Take a risk for high style.”

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Here, some tips for a look that will stand up to messy loved ones.

FURNISHINGS TO CHOOSE

Children can safely play around soft, ottoman-style coffee tables and upholstered benches, like this option from Circle Furniture.

“When I think of pet and child friendly,” says Craig Tevolitz, owner of Platemark Design in Boston, “what that means to me is durability, comfort, and reusability, without sacrificing the delightful aesthetic people want.”

For a family room, you’ll need a few basics:

Sofa Sectional sofas often get a bad rap in the design world because of the out-of-scale oversize versions. But there are choices, from IKEA to bespoke, with sleeker lines and a dearth of fluffy cushions. “People like sectionals because they’re a great gathering spot for families,” says Maloney Albiani. “People love that corner spot; you can get in it with a little one and read a book, or you can all pile onto one piece of furniture.”

Coffee Table Glass ones are to be avoided, Tevolitz points out. Maloney Albiani favors a farm-table style, because its casual look is more forgiving to dings and scratches. For a square or rectangular table, she recommends looking for rounded corners and a rounded edge to lessen the potential for sutures on little foreheads. Round tables, she adds, are safest for young children and even for rushing adults, who are less likely to bang their knees when moving quickly to grab a toddler. And since circles have no corners, they’re “easier to get around all the way.” Soft, ottoman-style coffee tables — perhaps with trays for holding drinks and magazines — are an especially appealing option. “They stand up to horseplay,” says Tevolitz. “Kids can jump on them, but adults can easily pull them up as extra seating.”

Side Tables If you have pedestal-style side tables, consider removing them from the family room; they tip over easily and can break or hurt a pet or a child. Heavy tables with four legs are the sturdiest. Look for linen-wrapped ones with softer edges and a painted finish that can be cleaned, Ventura says; in addition to being kid friendly, they’re trendy.

Ceiling Fixture Depending on the activity level of your children, you might want to consider shatter-resistant overhead lighting. Ceiling fixtures with fabric shades range from clean-lined drums to the more feminine shapes of, say, the Possini Euro “Planetarium’’ light, which fans out like a soft-petaled flower. Metal ceiling fixtures are also ideal, from laser-cut drum lights with a brushed-nickel finish to industrial-style multi-pendant looks.

Table Lamps Options with bases made of metal are safest, but shape is more important than material. “Even a nice beefy lamp can wobble,” says Maloney Albiani. “The lamp base has to be wider; it has to be bottom-heavy for stability.”

Finally, stay away from antiques in kid-frequented rooms, since they can be fragile.

LAYOUTS FOR FEWER BUMPS

“When you’re thinking about the family room,” says Maloney Albiani, “think about the spot where you’re going to sit watching TV with the kids. The comfy part.” Place the sofa in the best TV-watching spot — or in front of the fireplace or under a window if you’re a no-TV kind of family — and then arrange the rest of the furniture around that focal piece.

Unless you have a dedicated playroom, make a space for games and toys. “Maybe float the sofa in the middle of the room,” says Michele Eason, an interior designer with the Home Decor Group in Peabody, “with an area for toys behind it so you can keep an eye on the kids while they’re playing. And if someone comes over, it’s not hard to clean up really quick.”

Maloney Albiani, too, puts a focus on storage: “something that can be closed, a box or basket with a lid or cubbies with a spot where you can really put everything away. Find a way to make toys disappear to some extent.” And don’t crowd your furniture. “Leave plenty of floor space for playing,” Maloney Albiani says.

When positioning lamps — especially if you float the sofa — make sure the cords aren’t interfering with traffic flow. If necessary, you may be able to have an electrician put an outlet in the floor with a flat cover that pops up for use; a simple job running a wire up through the basement shouldn’t cost much more than $250. “Never put lamps in an area that blocks kids’ and dogs’ circulation around the room,” says Ventura. Similarly, if there’s a table or a tchotchke that’s constantly getting knocked over, says Tevolitz, “get rid of it or put it in another room.”

And don’t forget, he says, to “put anything breakable up high.”

THE BEST FOR WALLS

Consider chalkboard paint for at least one spot in your home. “It can be mixed in any color,” says interior designer Michele Eason, “and it’s a fun alternative.”

Many designers recommend using eggshell or satin finish paint on walls, since most flat paints, no matter how nice they may look, are virtually impossible to clean. Benjamin Moore, though, makes three matte-finish paints that are more durable than the traditional versions. Regal Classic ($41 a gallon) is straight paint, Regal Select ($45) is a paint-and-primer combination, and Aura ($63) is the highest-end paint-and-primer, and its color won’t fade when you scrub it. “Its washability is amazing,” says Ryan Mazin, store manager of Kirshon Paint and Window Treatments in Chelsea, “and any color will cover any other color in two coats, guaranteed.”

Light colors on walls can actually be easier to maintain, thanks in part to melamine foam sponges like Magic Eraser, but these sponges might show marks on darker walls. “On the other hand,” says Tevolitz, “with a dark color you might not see stains or fingerprints as much in the first place. I suppose it depends on the light in the room.” Maloney Albiani advises a chair rail, especially if your kids are younger. “That way,” she says, “if it does have to be repainted, you’re only doing the bottom half. I don’t have a child old enough, but apparently they write on the wall even if you’ve told them not to 45 times.”

Another option is to use chalkboard paint on at least one wall, so children can have at it. “It can be mixed in any color,” says Eason, “and it’s a fun alternative.” Magnetic paint, too, can be entertaining for kids, who can hang their artwork on it themselves and practice their ABCs with the colorful block letters often seen on family refrigerators.

Wallpapers are not verboten in households with kids and pets; just make sure to look for ones recommended specifically for use in children’s rooms, kitchens, or baths. Eason recalls a client whose cat shredded her grass-cloth wallpaper; vinyl grass cloth, she says, would have lasted longer and “looks like the real thing until you go up and touch it.” Similarly, you can get any fabric vinylized and paper-backed to use it as a wallcovering. The CLI Group (thecligroup.com) in Paterson, New Jersey, is one firm that offers this service to non-designers. If you do end up using a wallpaper, consider protecting all outside corners with plastic guards (about $3). They may not look gorgeous but really make a difference to the life of your wallpaper.

WINDOWS DRESSED FOR SAFETY

Though some worry that children or cats can climb or pull at floor-to-ceiling draperies that will then come crashing down, they can be a good choice, barring super, uh, energetic inhabitants. “Nice drapes can really elevate a room, be a wow factor, and stand the test of time,” says Maloney Albiani, adding that they deliver a pop of color without overwhelming a space.

With small children — or kittens — in the house, it is imperative to avoid cords hanging from window treatments, since they can cause injury or death. Luckily, many manufacturers now make cordless Roman shades in both fabric and natural materials like bamboo. If you aren’t working with a designer, blinds.com can be a good semi-custom source, with scores of fabrics to choose from, including a few contemporary styles, and pricing generally starting at $100 per shade.

ACCIDENT-READY UPHOLSTERY

“People like sectionals because they’re a great gathering spot for families,” says interior designer Kate Maloney Albiani. Here, the “Astoria” model from Circle Furniture.

“People like sectionals because they’re a great gathering spot for families,” says interior designer Kate Maloney Albiani. Here, the “Astoria” model from Circle Furniture.

You can keep your floors bare and choose minimalist window treatments, but short of using beach chairs in the family room, there’s really no avoiding upholstery — or what little hands can do to soil it. Leather, particularly distressed leather, and its analogues are probably the easiest to clean. “Instead of buying leather, buy the faux,” suggests Ventura. “It looks more like a true leather now and comes in fun colors — dyed blues, reds, oranges, kid-friendly colors. It’s easy to clean and wears really well.”

Still, not everyone likes the look of leather, and in any case, you shouldn’t have it on every piece in a room. For alternatives, Maloney Albiani says, “you want a really tightly woven fabric that allows you to wipe up the mess without pilling or matting.” One of the most popular options for designers today is indoor-outdoor fabrics, which have come a long way since Sunbrella first got into the outdoor furniture market in the 1980s. “The technology in textiles has really accelerated dramatically in the past few years,” says Tevolitz. “Indoor-outdoor weaves, chenilles, even velvets are a serious option.” With so many manufacturers — Sunbrella, SeaCloth, Perennials, Crypton, Holly Hunt — jumping on the indoor-outdoor bandwagon, you should be able to find a color and pattern to suit any design.

Other flat-weave fabrics can be made more durable by protecting them before stains happen. Tevolitz uses MWI Fiber-Shield (mwifibershield.com), located in the Boston Design Center, to provide this service; Ventura favors Timmins Enterprises in Natick. If a couch somehow ends up with a stain despite the protection, both companies will come out to spot-clean it for free. “No stain protection is 100 percent bulletproof,” says MWI’s office manager, Michael Shannon. “But it’s better to protect things as much as possible from the beginning.” He explains that his product “bonds with the entire fiber” and will stay on through at least a dozen cleanings. Teflon and Scotchgard, on the other hand, are topical protectors. 

Professionally cleaning a standard-size sofa will run you $250 to $300, and stain-guarding it costs about the same.

RUGS THAT WITHSTAND A BEATING

FLOR carpet tiles are ideal for rooms where spills are common. When one tile is stained, replace it with a new one.

For the kitchen or dining room, says Tevolitz, “use a durable floor covering like synthetic sisal or an indoor-outdoor vinyl-weave product.” He specifically suggests the manufacturer Bolon, whose products are available at sisalcarpet.com.

For the family room, you want a cozier rug. “Thick enough where if you’re on your knees playing with the kids for two hours, you’ll be fine,” says Maloney Albiani. It may seem counterintuitive, but this is one place to splurge. “People don’t want to invest in the rug because they think kids will ruin it,” she says, “but low-quality rugs don’t stand up to kids.”

The easiest way to avoid spots that show is to get a patterned rug with lots of colors in it. Avoid flat weaves and cotton rugs, because they stain easily and are hard to clean. “A hundred-knot natural-wool rug will repel stains and have a tighter pile,” Maloney Albiani explains. “The denser the mat, the more apt you are to be able to lift a stain from it. Milk, say, or orange juice would seep faster into a 60-knot machine-made rug. You don’t have a ton of time to get the stain up, and once it’s in the knot, forget it.” For tougher stains like red wine or coffee, simply blot up as much as you can and then call in a professional.

“The damage done by panicked rubbing is much worse than the stain itself,” says Tevolitz, “which can often be lifted quite easily by someone who knows what they’re doing.” Professionally cleaning or stain-guarding an 8-by-10-foot rug typically costs $125 to $300. “They have machines that work the stains out very carefully,” he adds.

Other floor-covering options include wall-to-wall, which doesn’t seem terribly practical at first blush but can work out, according to Eason, if it’s coated with a protectant — look for Stainmaster on the label, and consider hiring a service to safeguard the carpet further — and FLOR carpet tiles. FLOR is a system of easy-to-install 19.7-inch square tiles that can be laid out in infinite patterns; though the product’s early iterations were clearly modular, today there are so many colors and styles available that they can be made to look almost indistinguishable from a single large area rug. When one tile gets stained or worn out, just replace it with a new one at a cost of $10 to $30 each. You can see and feel the tiles at the FLOR store on Clarendon Street between Newbury Street and Commonwealth Avenue, but you may find the best prices — mainly on plain or single-color tiles — by clicking on the FLORoutlet link at flor.com.

Finally, if none of these suits, simply pick up some inexpensive rugs knowing you’ll have to “toss them out in three or four years,” says Eason. Either way, use the rug to pull the room together and make it your own. “It’s better to have a collection of things that show a family’s personalities,” says Maloney Albiani, “than to have everything come from one showroom. If you walk into a house and it’s all the same, that’s not a family. Families are eclectic. All the members have different personalities, and the home should reflect that.”

Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

MORE FROM THE MAGAZINE:

- Bright, happy kids’ rooms in Needham

- Piper Kerman reflects on Netflix series ‘Orange Is the New Black’

- the Globe Magazine section

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