Alexandra Lange | Essays

In T: The Zootopian

In early August I had the pleasure of traveling (by plane, train, local train and subway) to Sonneberg, Germany to interview toy designer Renate Müller. It was a wonderful experience, since I went from knowing nothing about Müller, the East German toy industry and Thuringia to being a huge fan. You can see her work, starting October 12, at R 20th Century in Tribeca.

My profile of Müller, delightfully titled The Zootopian, is in this Sunday's T Magazine and now posted online. Be sure to check out the background in her portrait: hanging on the wall are the cardboard patterns she created for her stuffed animals in the mid-1960s. She still uses them every day.

"Every time an animal gets sent back, I feel like a child has come back to me," said the German designer Renate Müller, referring to the jute-and-leather creatures she has been making, on and off, since the mid-1960s. Her menagerie ranges from rhinos to songbirds, from ottoman-size to hand-held. Müller's animals were always intended to be much more than cute. She designed the first ones while still a student, as teaching tools for children with special needs, to be used at clinics, kindergartens and at home to teach balance, grip and other motor skills as well as colors, shapes and textures. They had to be appealing enough to generate spontaneous play while still incorporating the work of the German therapists that Müller had observed.

Though Müller hadn't heard of the Eameses, or even the Finnish toy designer Kay Bojesen, who made elephants at about the same time, her background is hardly one of design naivete. Sonneberg was the toy capital of the world in the early part of the 20th century, and had one of the only high schools for toy design in the world.

Though Sonneberg feels remote today, it was once the world's toy capital. A doll or stuffed animal purchased in 1910 was as likely to have been made in Sonneberg as a toy purchased at Toys "R" Us today is made in China. Müller's family owned a toy factory, H. Josef Leven KG, and Müller was trained at Sonneberg's Polytechnic for Toy Design — the only high school of its kind. Her lessons included exercises from the Bauhaus as well as the pioneering ideas on children's education of Friedrich Fröbel, a local hero who invented kindergarten and developed a well-known set of building blocks. According to Reinhild Schneider, the director of the German Toy Museum, the German Democratic Republic "had a lack of material and technology to produce toys comparable to the West. Instead they tried to give their toys high pedagogical value."

I spent an incredible morning at the encyclopedic German Toy Museum in October, able to compare the Legos of East and West Germany (social housing versus gable roof and white picket fence), and check out the 67 incredible papier-mache figures that populate the panorama — a close facsimile of Sonneberg's town square — that won the Grand Prix at the 1910 World's Fair. English guide here.

Posted in: Product Design

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