"Cute, but not cartoonish."
That's the look Michelle Talbert says she had in mind when she began planning an animal-themed room for her 3-year-old son, Trace.
"I wanted a room that would grow with Trace," she explains, "with the idea we wouldn't have to change it until he was about 11 or 12."
But it wasn't until she accompanied her mother-in-law on a trip to New York City that she found the way to achieve such a long-wearing look.
"We came across a vendor who sold 3-D animals to put on walls. We purchased a giraffe and zebra. We already knew we wanted to paint something in the room, so the animals prompted a safari idea," she says.
The finished room is one that spurs a child's imagination and encourages creative play.
The clever 3-D idea can be duplicated in any child's room since the dimensional designs are sold online at beetling.com. Flat on one side, puffed-up on the other, Beetling Designs are made in other themes, as well, such as dinosaurs, Noah's ark and the solar system.
All are made of nontoxic, custom-blended foam that is lightweight and durable. The designs are shipped with step-by-step directions and all necessary hardware to mount them to the walls. Prices range from $49 for a 3-D butterfly to $500 for a giraffe to $999 for a Brachiosaurus and Stegosaurus set.
The Talberts contracted local artist Lydia Reynolds to create African scenes filled with animals in murals around the room. Reynolds says she spent five days painting the murals -- all done freehand using acrylics.
Talbert says the first animal her son asked for was Simba from "The Lion King." Reynolds obliged with a lion family. But her most impressive design is a Serengeti water scene complete with rhinoceroses, mother and baby elephants spraying each other, wading hippos and egrets flying in the distance. Look closely and you may even find a crocodile crawling into the water.
"You have to look for it; it's partially hidden," says the artist.
"For a 3-year-old, Trace was very articulate," Reynolds says. "He would come in and sit while I was painting and ask questions. He knew what he wanted and where he wanted it in the room."
For example, when the preschooler asked for a snake -- and his mom requested it be nonthreatening -- Reynolds painted a yellow-and-green, smiling reptile slithering around a branch that appears to be growing into the room from above the bookcase alcove.
"He says it's his happy snake," says Talbert, laughing.
The room's finishing touch is a custom bed made by Joe Croker, owner of American Rustic Furniture in Trenton, Ga. It's made of several hardwoods with exposed knots in the wood and a canopy of branches, says Croker. For safety, removable side rails were made of branches to prevent Trace from rolling out in his sleep.
"They wanted a jungle-theme bed with roots that looked like it was coming right out of the floor," Croker describes.
The bed is 84 inches long, 45 inches wide and 7 feet tall. Despite its height, Croker says it's not a bunk bed, but a single, oversized twin elevated off the floor with room for an active boy to crawl beneath when playing on the floor.
With that child's sight line in mind, Reynolds used a 14-inch space beneath a window to add another of Trace's requests: a skunk. It's a whimsical reminder of a skunk's late-night visit to the Talbert's neighborhood that the family laughed about.
The new bedroom has made bedtime more fun for Trace and his parents, adds his mom.
"Trace is just so excited about it. We wasn't sleeping in his own bed until we got this room fixed up. Now he loves sleeping in his new bed and he wants to show his room to everybody who comes over."
Contact staff writer Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.