“Kids take toys incredibly
seriously. A child can tell right away whether the adult really
thinks it’s a piece of useless rubbish […]. A toy can influence a
child emotionally as well as physically. As a result, toys can become
healing tools—emotionally as well as physically.’’
—Karl Staudinger, 1922
Kunsthall Stavanger is proud to present an exhibition, a playroom and a series of workshops for children by revolutionary German toy-designer Renate Müller. With her marriage of unique designs with traditional techniques, Müller has managed to create objects for children that are equally beautiful and useful. Through decades of experience and experimentation, Müller has developed a distinct design aesthetic that is easily distinguishable from others, and her use of jewel-tone hues and natural materials such as leather, jute, cotton, wool and wood, contributes to her timeless designs that perfectly merge function and form.
Perhaps most characteristic of Müller’s works, which are all handmade by the artist, is the attention to detail evident in each toy and its appeal to many aspects of the child – physical, visual, haptic, and emotional. In her design process, Müller reduces a form, for instance, an animal, into its bare essential elements, thereby activating the imagination of the child to fill in everything but the animal’s most basic form. She also considers the relationship of the toys to the body of the child, both in size and form as well as tactile versatility. She has created animal toys large enough to sit on and interact with using the whole body and thus encouraging physical development, and the textural differences in the materials she incorporates engage more subtle senses. Further, all toys function both individually and as part of a larger, cohesive whole. This, along with her chosen limited color palette, creates a calming effect rather than the anxiety often produced by an overwhelm of choices and possibilities pushed at children in our current era.
Müller’s skill in designing with children’s development in mind in part comes from the long and rich history of child-centered education and play in the region where she was raised. Renate Müller was born in 1945 and raised in Sonneberg in the Thuringia region of Germany, an area which was also home to the founder of the first kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel. Froebel incorporated bodily movement and nature in his educational model and his theories would go on to influence the Bauhaus in later years. Müller counts Froebel’s pedagogical philosophy as a major influence in her work. The town of Sonneberg itself is often referred to as Spielzeugstadt (Toy Town); before the World War II, forty percent of the world’s toys were produced here.
After World War II, Renate Müller’s father took over the factory formerly owned by her grandfather, Friedrich Engel, which Müller came to see as a second home. At the age of 14 she helped represent the family business at trade fairs, and began designing and producing toys herself in the early 1960s under the tutelage of Helene Haeusler at the Sonneberg Technical College for Toy Design in Sonneberg. Haeusler’s dream was to produce large, bright, exceptionally made toys that could be used in a therapeutic setting for children with physical and mental disabilities. Not only for fun, the toys were a comforting tool for use in balance training and musculoskeletal exercises as well as for sensory stimulation emotional development.
This early training in therapeutic play, particularly for children with physical or mental disabilities, shifted the trajectory of Müllers career and design process. From then on, she designed with the whole of the child in mind, and her designs consistently met rigorous qualifications for serving children with special needs. In 1976 her therapeutic toy line received a gold medal at the Leipzig Trade Fair and were tested (and deemed successful) by German psychiatric hospitals and clinics. In addition to the commercial production by the H. Josef Leven Company of her toy designs which she continually expanded, Müller founded her own studio in 1978 where she designed entire play environments and playgrounds, still keeping therapeutic play as her focus. She continues to hand-produce very limited quantities of the classic designs as well as continual renovate and create new objects for play.
Although toys that are created to be played with by children, Müllers works are also now regarded as heirloom pieces and artworks, and are being collected and preserved by galleries and institutions internationally. In production for nearly six decades, Müller’s designs have stood the test of time and promise to continue to be influential for both adults and children for many years to come.
Kunsthall Stavanger would like to thank Renate Müller and her family, and Evan Snyderman and Julia Hartshorn at R & Company for their support.