Choosing Toys—a little history and other thoughts

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The story of toys closely mirrors the history of the modern world. The simple toys of yesteryear may have been replaced by objects of remarkable technological variety but the underlying purpose and pleasures remain the same—toys are fascinating social documents.

In the years before the Second World War most children had few toys, all treasured, valued and protected.

In the 1950s the growth of plastics and cheap imports meant toys became radically cheaper. Toys became part of a consumer society’s wares—desired, acquired and rejected with ease. In the 1970s the producers of Star Wars and other such films and TV series wilfully created characters that could be turned into marketable toys, designed in scales and ranges calculated to create insatiable demand. Crucially, the buying of toys changed to being in the decision making hands of children, no longer satisfied to rely on adults making choices on their behalf. Amongst other critical forces, in a century of remarkable change, adults started to buy products for themselves that they described as toys, whether cars, computer games or memories of romantic pasts. The gap between toy and real world object has become blurred.

The primary purpose of toys hasn’t changed though. A good toy is a safe way to experience the world—it’s a model of what a child will find in later life. Good toys help children tell stories, create worlds and develop identities in public and private ways at minimal risk. A successful toy creates risk without being too risky, challenges without jeopardy, promotes cognitive and physical growth and importantly, becomes a valued part of the journey from childhood to adulthood—adults remember their best toys as central to their growing lives.

Toys have remarkably diverse uses. Some are important as devices for displacement—hideaways from life. Others build logic and thinking. Others create opportunities for social growth. Most serve all these purposes and more. Perhaps every toy, unless purposefully destructive, has a positive learning value.

Djeco, the French toy company specialises in toys with high educational value.  Established in the 1960s, when there was a backlash against cheap plastic imports, the firm both drew on traditional designs and started to question the learning purpose of their toy ranges, introducing richly coloured, image filled surfaces and finding ways of making wares at decent prices. Object & line stocks a large range of Djeco products including jigsaws, classic games, wall stickers and musical instruments.

O&l also stock small ranges by Janod and Vilac, also long established French toy companies. Both specialise in painted wood and have their factories in the Jura—the forested, mountainous area of France where toy making is a tradition. Janod’s superb, contemporary toys sit alongside Vilac’s more classic, almost sculptural cars, vans and lorries.

Amongst our favourites, Janod’s iconic rocket with its Tintin look alike astronaut, Djeco’s Animo drum with drawings of dancing elephants on the side, and any of Vilac’s small painted wood cars—all treasures.

How to tell a great toy? There are simple rules: Is it immediately attractive? Is it cleverly thought through? Has it got lasting value? Does it have a high level of design? Is the price right? Is it a token of affection?

PS. Djeco’s wall sticker The Poem Tree was prominently featured on the CBBC studio wall for several years.

Haoshi’s Swallow Clock and mass production

haoshi Swallow Clock

 

We’re slowly coming out of a time, rooted in the 1950s and 60s, of seeing Chinese made goods as shabby and cheap. Other prejudices, real and imaginary, have since come into play, about working conditions and the economic threat posed by the largest country in the world.

Not all China is focused on mass production. Taiwan, the island state once at war with the mainland and now at some sort of mutual understanding to live and let live, has a thriving community of young designers every bit as active and creative as those in the rest of the world. Like their counterparts in the West, Taiwanese designers are products of a thriving art school system, which perhaps more than the UK connects with traditional crafts on one hand, and cutting edge technologies on the other. It’s community that sees itself as entrepreneurial and independently minded.

Haoshi are a typical small company in this mould. The four members of the team specialise in modelling animals and birds that are the basis of rings, necklaces and other pieces of jewellery. Recently they’ve turned their attention to designing and making clocks and lamps.

It’s the Swallow Clock, available in the UK from objectandline.co.uk, that’s perhaps the most classic of their recent offerings.  Twelve cast resin birds circle a clock, each flapping wings in harmony. There’s something perfectly formed and rhythmic.

There’s also something poetic about their description of the clock, a literary trait that appears when they write about other products, ‘Although time flies like the birds, but capturing every moment and seize the day will make life fly beautifully as these swallows towards a better tomorrow. Swallow symbolizes luck and hope, may this clock give you the wings of good fortune and make you fly up high in life’.

PS. Hao Shi means ‘good things’

Flensted’s almost perfect mobile

bohr movie

Niels Bohr isn’t a household name but will be known to physicists the world over. He is one of the grandfathers of atomic theory. In the early part of the last century the Danish scientist discovered that the electrons that dance around the nucleus of an atom are capable of skipping from one to another, creating flows of energy, force and mass. It’s a simple idea with remarkable implications — we began to see the universe as a constantly moving, fluid entity — our world could no longer be seen as fixed and never changing.

In 1922 Bohr won the Nobel Prize for Physics. During the Second World War he escaped Nazi occupation, joined the Allies’ work on the Atomic Bomb and in later years became influential as a proponent for the peaceful use of atomic energy. He died in 1962.

Flensted, the famous Danish makers of mobiles, has worked with the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen to design a mobile in his honour. It’s a model of an atom of course, and one with a perfect form. Bright steel balls represent the electrons. They float round a gold nucleus, kept in orbit by stainless steel wires. It’s one of the gentlest, most self contained mobiles to be found, a treasured gift for scientists and lay people alike.

The Niels Bohr Atomic Mobile can be found at Object & line’s Lincoln shop and online at objectandline.co.uk. £40.

Bigger’s new website

Biggers of Bailgate

A welcome to Biggers of Bailgate’s new website. –  http://www.biggers-cookware.co.uk/. The long established company is an emporium of tools for cake makers, chefs, winemakers and all passionate about food and drink.

 

Post increases

Sorry for this – we’ve had to increase post charges to £3.50 for Standard Delivery and £4.75 for First Class.

In April Royal Mail radically increased the price of all but the smaller parcels. We moved lots of orders to MyHermes but they too, have increased prices by the same %.

All this said, O&l charges are less than many online retailers and cover the cost price of sending only.

 

Design education in the curriculum

ebaccs

There’s a tussle for the education system that’s only heard through soundbites — a debate around the history of subjects and the fierce conservatism of policy makers. The result, under this government, is that design and technology (the broad areas of human endeavour, not just the school subject) are being sidelined in favour of a rush to a romanticised past. Seems extraordinary, at a time when technological knowledge and application through good design is so critically important we don’t headline the subject in the curriculum.

http://www.baccforthefuture.com/

sense of place

Atlantic Cities

It seems that one neuron or another in our brain is attached to exact physical spaces we encounter every day. It’s a wonderful idea that the brain is packed with markers that fire when we’ve reached this or that spot. Not only do we attach stories to places but can also locate them precisely in space – “Each neuron cares for one place,” says one scientist. More in Emily Badger’s excellent article in http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2013/05/were-only-beginning-understand-how-our-brains-make-maps/5678/