From the Steiff company’s teddy bears to Eichhorn’s wooden toy train and finally to the dinosaurs of the Schleich firm – Germany has a long-standing tradition where toys are concerned. Family-owned and run firms such as Sina-Spielzeug, located in the Erzgebirge, have set themselves the goal of continuing this tradition and gently revitalising it at the same time. And next-generation designers and artists in Berlin and Frankfurt are developing completely new directions from this legacy right from the start.
Toll’sToy by Drache&Bär | © Drache&Bär
Archaic forms interpreted anew
Toll’sToy by Drache&Bär | ©
For young toy designers too, an idea is always what starts things off. And it is often their own children, as in the case of the Polish couple Lena Hensel and Grzegorz Cholewiak, who provide the impulse to get involved with the theme of toys at all. The couple’s little daughter wanted to ride a bike like older children, but was not able to yet. Following the old tradition of the balance bike, the father, a product designer from Cracow, built a toy for her of this sort, for pushing and running from behind, simple and beautiful, made with a wooden bar and a wheel designed by her mother, the artist Lena Hensel.
Since this brightly-coloured balance bike with its turquoise pattern was very well received not only by their own child, the two expanded the series of historic toys that they had been reinterpreting to include a jump-rope and a spinning top, thus completing their collection of the archetypal forms of all toys. “It’s great to see how enthusiastic children are about archaic things, that were functioning over 100 years ago and that have only the children’s own motor activity to power them, and develop their motor skills, too,” says Lena Hensel.
Toll’sToy by Drache&Bär | ©
And when these simple toys are not in use, their execution and workmanship are pleasing to the parents’ eyes as well; eyes that are otherwise frequently dazzled by an overabundance of glitz on plastic surfaces.
Breakfast on railroad tracks
Railroad tracks breakfast-set | design “Neue Freunde”, Interluxe via DaWanda.com
Product designer Carsten Rosenbohm of the Frankfurt studio “Neue Freunde” also dispenses with glitz. And in his case, too, it is his offspring who give him ideas for toys. When his little son was pensively pushing his train around his breakfast board, an idea took hold in Rosenbohm, who designs toys as advertising tools for the marketing sector: he sketched a little design artwork in the form of a breakfast board with a rail connection built onto it. All commercial wooden railway tracks can be connected with it. At first, though, the breakfast board by Rosenbohm and his friend Fellehner was conceived only as a nice present for friends, but then more and more people wanted their breakfast served by rail. And at the design festival DMY in Berlin, the mini-railway was well received by creative people, both great and small. Now there are also matching “tunnel cups” and a salt shaker that rides along – and those who wish to can also even – in keeping with the season – connect up a small Advent wreath.
Redesigning and preserving old traditions
“Let´s build a railway” | design: Ursula Wünsch, Berlin
Honeycomb | design: Yasuo Aizawa, Japan
In contrast, “Sina-Spielzeug” in the Erzgebirge is preserving and cautiously revitalising the ancient woodworking crafts tradition of this abundantly forested region. On the one hand, original Fröbel toys, deriving from the inventor of the German kindergarten Friedrich Fröbel and produced by the family-owned and run company, are available. Starting in 1818, Fröbel began thinking about children’s play and educational needs, and designed toys along these lines such as specially arranged balls, spheres and cubes. In addition to these German classics, building-block toys traditionally come from the Erzgebirge as well, and Barbara Seidler, the current director of Sina, has been cautiously transporting them into their present-day forms for the last twenty years, in part with the support of international designers such as Yasuo Aizawa (Japan). For Sina, Aizawa has given the building-block principle a modern interpretation and has been distinguished with several awards for his efforts. For Barbara Seidler, co-operations such as this are important: “Especially with toy design, there’s so much that has to be just right. Toys must always be safe, functional, educationally interesting, robust and well-made. If all that goes along with a great design that also appeals to children emotionally, it’s absolutely wonderful!”
THE BASIC PLAY | design: Fred Voß, Hanover
A survey of this and additional good German toys is available online at afilii.de, a platform that has already presented itself at the annual design festival Designers’ Open in Leipzig as a collection point for lovely things for children.