How did you start out in the toy industry?
I did my first toys when I was still in college, in 1966. I was a ceramics student and the stuff I was working on interlocked and if I doubled it, it could interlock freestanding.
I got samples made up and someone gave me address of a Swiss toy maker called Kurt Naef. He was the best wooden toy maker in the world, certainly at the time and probably since. They were rather stiff architectural things but the quality of making was unbelievably high. I sent him three things and he bought two of them.
I thought ‘it’s a pushover this, I’ll do some more’.
I then made PlayPlax, two-inch squares of clear plastic that interlocked. That was being manufactured during my final year at college and it hit the market just about the time that I hit the street. The first Christmas that I was out of college I had a cheque for £700 for royalties. I had been living on £700 a year up to that point so it was pretty amazing. Suddenly I found myself in the toy business.
I then did things on spec and touted them around and I was teaching a bit, doing two days a week as a teacher and two days as a designer. That went on until 1969 when the American who bought PlayPlax invited me to go over to their studio in New York to work. I worked there for three months but was recalled to England because I won the Duke of Edinburgh Prize.
I carried on doing spec work and one of the people I did spec work for was the owner of Ambi Toys. I sold him the odd piece but by the mid-Seventies, being a freelance toy designer was not truly viable.
I approached him at Ambi and asked if he could employ me full time. I worked for them in the UK while he was in Amsterdam and I was then responsible for every product they made until they were sold to Brio in Sweden.
So here I am, an ex-toy designer, until I get a call from Galt who say, ‘we’ve just bought your work, can we talk about it?’
Your creations like PlayPlax, Joupii and the Bird and Fish bath toys are simple, effective toys made from plastic or wood. What is your view on tech-based toys?
It’s very welcome.
I was once asked, what is the best current toy? I said it’s an Apple Mac with Photoshop loaded on it. It’s the best toy ever invented. It is the most creative program.
I’m very much in favour of screen-based things, but not to the exclusion of all else. I was only ever making things up to four years olds, and now by then they’ve been into tablets or screen based products for at least two years. But there’s nothing that substitutes for the physicality of the actual object.
I don’t know whether we’ll evolve into different sorts of human beings because we now relate to the world through a flat image, but it seems we risk something if we lose the ability to touch, feel and react.
Over the years, I’ve been an obsessive collector of all kinds of things and it occurred to me quite early on that a lot of the information we get from anything came in through the fingers, not just the eyes. There are more senses than just the eyes and I do worry its just look based not do based.
Quite early on when I produced PlayPlex, if you give it to a child aged one, they eventually learn to fit the pieces together. You don’t know that’s a learned process until you see someone learn it before your very eyes. Then some children would piece it together in a different way, in different angles. But you have to have your hands on it to do it.
Now some of your toys are heading back to retail, how do you think they will be received decades after their initial launch and in a market brimming with app and tech toys?
The easy way out of the problem you’re posing is to write ‘retro’ in front of everything. It makes it respectable again because it means it’s had a previous life and has been established.
When we reintroduced PlayPlax, the amount of stuff on the internet about it is astonishing. People had been trying to buy it for ten years. If you Google my name now, it goes on for pages which is very weird. There is a thirst for this simpler stuff.
Whatever you do with screen based toys, there are always going to be more similar than they are different. Playing with ‘stuff’ is very different than playing with notions on a screen. All the screen things are one things and all the other stuff is a lot of different things.
What was the biggest change to happen to the toy industry while you were involved in it?
Electronics. I got out just about the time when it became impossible not be involved in that. There was one toy I did that depended on electronics in a very rudimentary way. It was a steel ball rolling around a dish, which connected pairs of electrodes around the dish, which played musical notes. It didn’t really suit me but it was required.
I love simple mechanisms. I love designing toys with a little movement that doesn’t cost much extra to include.
I made a duck for the bath that has a movable beak. Rather than make the beak one piece, I made it upper and lower mandible as in real life. I added a pendulum to the lower mandible so it would swing and the beak opens and closes as if the duck is talking. The extra cost of including that is in tenths of a penny. That thrills me.
With bath toys, you have to make them watertight. With the duck toy, it occurred to me that you didn’t have to worry about that because children could pour water out of its beak. The fact that water got in there was no longer a shock or a problem. Pouring it out became part of the play process.
Galt are re-introducing my Bird and Fish bath toys and they need to be watertight and sealed because if one in a thousand fails, you can be sure that’s the one in a thousand that someone put down on their Sheraton table.
What was day-to-day life like working as a resident toy designer?
The way it worked with Ambi was that I’d send them a coloured line drawing of what I thought I could make. They’d say they liked the look of it and then I’d spend on average six to eight weeks developing it and producing an engineering drawing.
On average, we made five or six new items a year. It doesn’t seem like very much, but when you consider I had to engineer them as well as draw them, it was quite a lot.
I’d have a rolling list of possible ideas and the ones that floated to the top got stronger. They’d get a bit of work done on them. The boss would gather a little of my enthusiasm and want me to commit more time to it. After about a fortnight, I’d get a phone call asking ‘is it ready yet?’ The answer was always ‘no, I’m working on it.’ I’d made the mistake early on of doing something simple very quickly so he took that as that standard time it took to do everything.
Very rarely we ditched something because it would cost too much but you learn not to invest time into things you couldn’t see a way out of. That’s one of the things that kept my ideas simple because you can’t go too far from base camp if you want to be sure of getting out of the job in six weeks.
Is it rare for a toy designer to stay with a firm for as long as you did with Ambi Toys? I’d imagine there are more freelancers around now than those employed full time with companies.
Doing what I did, there aren’t enough companies of the right size willing to commit. I lucked into it.
There aren’t many people that describe themselves as toy designers. There are lots of people who are designers that have designed toys. I’m a Royal Designer for Industry since the late 1990s.
Introduced to new people in that situation, I would jokingly say “I’m the toy designer” because there was only the one. Some students once said to me, “you don’t look like a toy designer,” so I said, “well when I’m designing toys I wear a red nose and a revolving bow tie, but this is my day off!”
How important is reputation in your profession?
Even being employed full time, you can’t get away with many duds. You can get away with one, that’s life.
If I’m making five toys and year and two of them fail every year, that’s a bit too much. They’re spending serious money making these things and not getting a return. You can’t afford to fail very often.
With freelancing, reputation is all. They are trying to buy into your previous successes. Why else would they employ you?
Gendered toys are a hot topic in today’s industry. Did you bear gender in mind back when you were designing toys at Ambi?
My stuff didn’t have much gender orientation at all. There was a movement 15 years ago to make things more obviously available for girls because there were fewer girls things and I’m ashamed to say we got involved with it too, but only to the extent that we molded some of our things in pink and pale blue instead of primary colours.
If you could categorise our toys, they were probably more on the male side and we occasionally thought about what we should do. But the danger is you end up with pastel colours and make things into flower shapes instead squares. It all looks a bit patronising and unnecessary.
What would your advice be to toy designers just starting out?
For a young person with an idea, the best you can do is approach a respectable company. Make sure your designs are marked and dated because copyright needs to be dated to you can prove your prior claim to the idea. But it’s hard.