Playroom design isn’t a subject that gets much attention, but Carsten Rakutt hopes to change that. The founder of Rakoon Design tells Stephanie Ip just how important it can be in influencing a child’s growth.
We all grew up designers and creators, building make-believe worlds with nothing but our imaginations. Carsten Rakutt believed he was a full-fledged builder at eight years old, and recalls childhood days spent out in the forest behind his home in Germany, where he’d create his own world with friends, building treehouses, finding caves and transforming his natural surroundings into anything he desired.
The playroom designer and founder of Rakoon Design now channels that same instinct for play into his thoughtfully designed spaces for children, educational landscapes that not only stimulate young imaginations, but encourage their physical, mental and social development.
An engineer by profession, Rakutt worked in shipping for 20 years, spending much of his time sailing the seas before settling in Hong Kong, where he found himself moving into a drastically different field. When he arrived here eight years ago, he met Crisel Consunji, an early-childhood educator who was then teaching Kindermusik to children. Together, they decided to embark on a new venture centred on building a community around the young. In 2015, they founded Baumhaus, a first-of-its-kind creative-arts learning centre in Hong Kong, whose flagship centre is in Wanchai. This year, the couple is expecting their first child.
It might sound like we’re digressing here but the beginning of Baumhaus (“treehouse”) was also the beginning of Rakoon Design. “The name Rakoon Design is only two years old,” says Rakutt. “When we began Baumhaus, we started building the furniture for our own school. We started to design the playroom in the school and things grew from there.”
Outsourcing the building never crossed Rakutt’s mind. “I’ve been building stuff for a long time,” he says. “I built my own house in Germany. That’s always in me and I didn’t see a reason to hand it out to someone else. It was quite natural to say, well, we want to have this so I’ll build it myself.”
The Baumhaus playroom was Rakutt’s first design, but its design language will inform the aesthetic and educational value of all his future works. Before he started, he asked himself how to prepare children for a future that will be different from the one he grew up with. The answer lay in nature.
“All my designs are inspired by pure nature,” he says. “It’s about bringing as much nature into the urban environment as possible. For me, that also means bringing as few pre-fabricated designs into the playrooms as possible. I didn’t want to create ships or castles or anything where the design already defines what it is. My designs are almost like blank paper, so children can let their fantasies go wild. It’s similar to nature in that sense – you can step into the forest and build anything out of it.”
As people began to hear about the spaces Rakutt was building for Baumhaus, he began getting enquiries about building bespoke playrooms for others. He established Rakoon Design in 2019 specifically to address these growing demands, realising there was a lack of innovation and expertise in this rather niche field.
Rakutt’s playroom designs don’t adhere to any particular parenting or educational systems, which gives his clients the freedom to co-build a playground design that suits them. It’s also because play and education aren’t necessarily the same.
“I want as few limitations in the designs as possible, because a lot of education philosophies aren’t designed around play design but knowledge transfer,” he says. “But there’s so much more to growing up and being educated than knowledge transfer. Play is an existential part of growing up and so we need to create these spaces for children to play as freely as possible. In a way, it’s an add-on to the education realm out there.”
Raising children and building a community around them wasn’t solely based on knowledge transfer. Rakutt believes children need space to live, explore, grow and flourish, but finding space in Hong Kong can be a challenge.
“Space in Hong Kong and usage of space in Hong Kong is often not optimised,” he says. “When we look at how children play, it’s not one dimensional, yet most playrooms in the current environment are very one-dimensional play structures. What I mean is that it’s all very hyper energy-based, running-up-and-down kind of play. What this type of environment does is to overstimulate children and it becomes a place where aggression is being created and catered [for]. That’s all part of play and we don’t want to deny this, but it’s only a small part of play. What I wanted to create was a place where a small child – say, a three-year-old – isn’t just going wild for half an hour and then comes back more aggressive and sweaty. I want them to have hours of quality time in the playroom with their parents, their caregivers and their peers.”
Given the space limitations – and sky-high rents – in Hong Kong, Rakutt’s playroom design is compact but complete, full of elements of play that allow children to engage in different ways. There are tunnels, steps and slides to facilitate running around and interaction. There are also boltholes and quiet corners where children can withdraw and play quietly – and even take a nap. And unlike typical playrooms in Hong Kong, parents are more than welcome to join in the fun.
Rakutt encourages parents to engage in play with their children in his playrooms. “It’s essential, because children at this age are learning skills by looking at their parents and caregivers. They’re learning how to bond with people in their environment. Particularly in the early years, play is an essential part of learning and everything children learn to do is by play. If we eliminate the best teachers – the parents and caregivers – we make the space very one-dimensional and then the values are very limited,” he explains.
Following the Baumhaus playroom, Rakoon Design has taken on other projects, such as working with charity OneSky to build a three-storey playroom in Sham Shui Po for underprivileged children, and Playdot at Lee Gardens, a welcome respite for children and parents during shopping outings or after school.
With soft wood tones and organic structures, Rakoon Design’s playrooms are far from the usual play areas in Hong Kong’s parks and outdoor spaces, with their glossy surfaces in jarringly vivid blues, red and yellows.
Sustainability is a huge factor for Rakutt, ensures all the wood he uses comes from Finland and can be traced to a sustainable source. His production is in Germany, partly because of his connections there but also because it’s where he can trust the quality and workmanship.
“We don’t want to use plastic at all in my playgrounds,” says Rakutt. “The most important thing is to bring nature into the equation. The more nature there is in play, the calmer children can be. The stimulation you get from blues and reds and yellows in a playroom can be counterproductive, because these colours make people aggressive. They’re warning colours in nature. So by toning down the noise levels around us, children and adults aren’t distracted and they can focus on each other and create healthier play.”
Rakutt is also inspired by Scandinavian design. “Designers such as Olsen Kundig, Todd Saunders and Snøhetta inspire me,” he says. “What they all have in common is that they merge architecture with nature. It’s very pure and minimalistic; they reduce the noise and clutter around us and go back to the basics.”
He cites Saunders’ work as particularly enlightening. “From Saunders, you’d have buildings where the roof is green and it merges into the hills behind. That’s very much part of my design language as well, where I want my furniture to merge with the building. It’s not free-standing equipment.
It should have a connection with the building, almost as if it’s growing out from the walls. I find that important, because loose-standing articles can be quite cold and dysfunctional.”
Rakutt concedes that play design is a niche that people are still exploring. “In Europe, people are only starting to realise how important it is to create the right play environment to help children grow mentally and socially,” he says.
It’s something he’s working to change in Hong Kong as well. But first, perceptions of education have to change. “For the first couple of years, we need to put more emphasis on play rather than academic [subjects]. The more we understand that, the more there’ll be a demand for proper play equipment and playgrounds.
“The government still has a very standardised approach and clubhouses are driven by protocols,” says Rakutt. “Schools and kindergartens are growing and developing in that direction, but it’ll take time.”