Last Sunday night, I had dinner in an upscale Georgetown home. There, steps away from a creamy leather sectional, a polished Sub-Zero refrigerator, and a crystal sphere chandelier, stood another prized piece of home decor: the high chair.
It was minimalist, white, elegant, and looked custom-made for such a swanky setting. I was intrigued by it because, for the past month, I’ve been using my kids to test another high chair that turns heads: the $299.99 4moms magnetic high chair. As its name says, this thing has a tray that magnetically attaches to the chair to make mealtime a little easier on parents who fear pinching kids’ fingers as they struggle to get the high chair tray on. 4moms also makes special magnetized bowls and utensils that stick to the tray so they’re difficult —though not impossible— for babies to toss on the floor.
4moms, which calls itself a robotics company that makes high-tech baby gear, cares a lot about design. You might know it best for its one-button, power-folding stroller, the aptly-named Origami. Or perhaps a friend of yours has the 4moms mamaRoo infant seat, a rebel in the world of cutesy baby swings. Maybe you even bought the Breeze, which takes aim at Graco’s Pack ’n Play playard by setting up and collapsing in one step.
In some ways, 4moms is like the Apple of baby products: it takes something that already exists and makes it better — so much so that people may even forget about the original product. Like Apple, 4moms also assumes people will pay a premium for its high quality and style, and so far, they’ve been right.
But the 4moms magnetic high chair doesn’t follow the company’s typical pattern of improving on an existing product. In fact, several of this high chair’s features are a lot less convenient than other models that have been on the market for years.
This isn't to say that this new high chair doesn't have a few pluses. Its seat has a smooth surface that's simple to wipe down after a messy meal. It comes in three stylish colors that would blend well in high-end homes, like that Georgetown home I mentioned. And it's adjustable; the seat can move to one of three heights and the tray adjusts to three positions.
My frustration began with assembling this high chair. I should note right here that I’m handy enough for most projects of this caliber; I know how to hang drywall, I’ve installed Nest products in my home, and I even managed to put together a Baby Einstein Activity Jumper that felt more like a test of sanity. But while the legs of this high chair fit on easily, I next had to fit four tiny screws underneath the chair using an included Allen key. Because the screw holes are located very close to the high chair seat, you can’t rotate the Allen key all the way around to turn them in. This process is painfully slow, and there are no included directions that suggest alternatives. After talking to 4moms, a spokesperson suggested raising the high chair seat to its highest position to make this a little easier. But this isn’t obvious, especially if you’re a sleep-deprived parent assembling a high chair late at night. Or so I’ve heard.
Once assembled, I tested the tray’s "magnetic magic," as the 4moms website describes it. The tray does attach with magnets, but to remove it, you need to squeeze the latch below the tray with one hand, like lots of other models. Even the basic high chair I got three years ago works like this.
Mara McFadden, director of product management at 4moms, says that the product team originally wanted the magnetic high chair’s tray to work the way I expected. But government safety requirements say that the tray must lock into place — not just stick on with strong magnets.
A removable tray liner can be pulled off and put in the dishwasher for cleaning, but this isn’t novel (again, my three-year-old high chair does this). I thought this tray liner might stick on with magnets, but it doesn’t; instead, it’s just as hard to pry off as the one I own.
The 4moms magnetic bowls, plates and utensils are mildly interesting, but lots of bowls already come with built-in suction cups that stick to trays, and most parents won’t want to pay extra for these. One lidded bowl comes included with this high chair, but additional ones cost between $9.99 for a fork and spoon to $39.99 for a starter set of utensils, bowls, and plates.
Even if this magnetic tray saves you a small amount of time, you’ll add time back with this high chair’s strap buckles. These snap in in four places, while other five-point harness straps snap in just two places. My hungry, wriggly nine-month-old son’s screaming frustration was a good representation of how plenty of parents must feel when using these. Another issue: The shoulder straps are too short for toddlers, so only infants can use them. My 2 1/2-year-old is old enough stay in place without shoulder straps, but the too-small, unused 4moms straps were annoying on the seat behind him.
Mara McFadden says 4moms has heard from other people about this problem and said it’s an issue the company will be addressing in the next version of the high chair. Meanwhile, she suggests keeping bigger kids in place by using just the lap straps without attaching the shoulder straps.
Finally, the 4moms magnetic high chair can’t fold up when you want to store it away. Lots of basic high chairs, like mine, do this, as do high-end models like the one I saw at the Georgetown dinner, which I later found out was made by Baby Bjorn. Some high chairs can even be converted to booster seats or kitchen stools after they’ve served their time as high chairs, but this 4moms model is just a high chair.
4moms prides itself on using innovative design in its products, but when it sets a high standard for doing things differently, products like this magnetic high chair are a real let-down — especially if you have to pay $300 to get one.