Renate Müller: Toys + Design
This is the first monograph ever published in the United States on this little-known East German toy designer's work. Müller's toys are simple, solid, and palpably irresistible to anyone with even the slightest design sensibility or love of childhood imagination-energy. When kids see them, they immediately want to start climbing, riding, rocking . . . in short, doing. The toys invite interaction and adventurous narrative plot lines, even as they embody the patient personalities of those amazing story-book pets who allow children to do anything they want to them, no matter how uncomfortable, loving them back all the more for their exuberant abuses. The story of Müller's unearthing is classic. Following is Evan Snyderman's foreword to the book, which tells one of the great design discovery stories of the new millennium.
"In the fall of 2005 while traveling through Germany I had a day to visit all the vintage design galleries in Köln. Digging through the storage room of one shop, I noticed a group of colorful and somewhat raggedy-looking objects way up high on a shelf. I climbed over a sofa and past a pile of lamp parts to get to them. Maybe it was because I had a 6-month-old son at home in New York that my attention that day turned away from furniture to focus on this group of exceptional, large-scale stuffed animals and toys. Maybe it was because I myself have collected toys for as long as I can remember, starting with Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars and moving on to tin toys, wooden boats, and other miniature mechanical objects.
Like all great design, for children or adults, there was a sophistication to these objects. They were visually graphic, made in a rough natural fabric combined with brightly colored leather handles and saddles in orange and blue. Then there was the feel of them. When I pulled one off the shelf I was surprised by the weight and the solidity of the form. These were not your average stuffed animals. They were voluminous and strong, yet soft and playful at the same time.
The owner of the gallery informed me that the pieces were not for sale but were part of his personal collection. He told me they had been designed and made in the late 1960s by a German toy maker named Renate Müller and that at one time they could have been found in kindergarten play areas throughout Germany. After unsuccessfully trying to convince him to part with them, I left Köln that evening with only pictures in my camera and thoughts in my head of Müller's creations.
My enthusiasm proved impossible to ignore because a week or so later the dealer in Köln called with an offer and I was able to purchase my first works by Renate Müller—a Rhino, a small Elephant, and a set of four Bowling Pins. It was not long before word spread that a New York dealer was interested in the toys and I started to get phone calls and emails from other German dealers and their friends. We purchased a six-foot-long green Alligator, a huge rocking Duck, a Hippo, and a Cube.
By 2007 we had a small collection and we put together a grouping in the window of the gallery. People immediately began stopping on the sidewalk outside to peer through the glass. Several months later, I discovered an out-of-print catalogue from Müller's first solo exhibition at the German Toy Museum. This book gave us our initial insight into the impressive scope of Müller's work.
There was a photograph of her at the back, along with an address and fax number. I took the liberty of sending her a fax explaining that we had been collecting her work and how much we enjoyed it. I asked if it would be possible to meet the next time we were in Europe and to visit her studio. A few days later we received an excited and friendly return fax, inviting us to come to visit her anytime.
In June, my partner Zesty Meyers and I made our way (via a small local train departing from Nuremberg) to Müller's hometown of Sonneberg, in former East Germany. The train passed through the stunning bucolic landscape, and along hills dotted with imposing castles and churches. Upon arriving in Sonneberg, we found no one at the station to greet us. Did Renate's fax machine run out of paper the day we confirmed our trip?
We walked to the address (as printed in the Toy Museum catalogue) only to find that no one was home. We asked a neighbor who was busy chopping wood in what was now a light drizzling rain. He instructed us to ring the bell at the back of the house where Renate's son and daughter in law lived. We were welcomed into the family home and finally introduced to the woman behind our facsimile correspondences.
What little time we had with Renate was spent poring over her work: bears, hippos, snakes and birds were scattered about the house/workshop. We dug deep into her expansive archive of photos and drawings as she regaled us with the fascinating story of her unique business. Then and there we decided that there had to be an exhibition on Müller's work at R 20th Century. It was not a difficult decision.
The work of Renate Müller can be described best by the artist herself—her first slogan was the wonderfully succinct: "Therapeutic toys—coarse but cute…" What's most striking to me about Müller's designs is the freshness and honesty they represent. There is a purity of purpose not often found in contemporary design. There are no hidden motives or tricks, no catering to marketing or trends. They are created for a reason and serve their function—to help young children with physical disabilities improve and strengthen their motor skills. Müller is a true original, having created this body of work independent of outside influences in design.
Working from her own home since taking back the rights to her designs in the early 1990s after the reunification of Germany, she chooses to work alone and has staved off countless offers from manufacturers to produce her designs for larger distribution. Müller talks of the strong connection she has with each piece as she hand-makes it, and the individuality each one holds in its posture or expression. She intends to keep it this way and welcomes the occasional return of well-loved creatures sent back to her for the replacement of a missing eye, ear or a general face-lift. The toys are passed down from grandparents to new parents, from children to grandchildren. Those that remember Müller's creatures from their school days in Germany are transported to a time when life was different and maybe a little less serious. Something we could all use from time to time. Müller's designs hold a unique place in our hearts and no matter what age you are, the "beasts," as she calls them, can be enjoyed by one and all.