Photos by Monika Höfler
I read this New York Times article about German toymaker Renate Müller a few months ago, but the images of her amazing jute-and-leather creatures have stayed in my head. I love the vivid colors of the hippo and bird above, but a Google image search also turns up some incredible creations. Some are huge, with leather handles for easy riding and climbing; some can be held in little hands. I absolutely love the combination of rough jute and smooth leather, bright colors and neutral ones. They’re also a lesson in sustainability — the sturdy toys last for decades.
“Last year I got a hippo back to fix — I think it was 40 years old,” Müller said in August over coffee and open-face salami sandwiches in her studio in Sonneberg, Germany. “All O.K., the wood inside all O.K., only the jute was a little bit destroyed and the leather I must sew again. That was a very good feeling for me.”
Her biography is as fascinating as her animals; Müller trained in Sonneberg, the German capital of toymaking, at a high school that focused on toy design (!). Her earliest work, from the mid-1960s, was designed to help teach disabled children and children in psychiatric hospitals and clinics. When East Germany was created and the toy factories became collectives, she turned freelance, until 1991, when she was able to buy back the rights to her designs. She’s been making them by hand ever since.
If you live in New York, you can see her work in person at the R 20th Century design gallery. If you don’t, I highly recommend the article.