Floris Hovers' design toys 19.08.11

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Growing up is one of the worst things that can happen to a human," Floris Hovers says earnestly. "I would much rather have stayed a child." The Dutch designer and would-be Peter Pan is showing me around his workshop in Raamsdonksveer, the small village in the south of the Netherlands where he grew up. "Our problem is that we think too much," he says. "Children just play and learn and question things. We need to see something before we believe it." Hovers, who set up his studio in 2006 after graduating from Design Academy Eindhoven, applies the same childlike candour to all his toy and furniture designs, achieving a rigorous simplicity that appeals to children and adults alike.

At the Milan Furniture Fair this year, he presented Flessenboot, a charming kit of coloured sail, mast and rudder that can be strapped on to an empty shampoo bottle to make a rudimentary toy boat. "About six or seven years ago I was camping by a river in France and I saw some boys playing downstream," he explains. "I made a little boat out of litter and sent it their way." Delighted to discover the mystery boat, the boys were quick to ditch their other toys, even bringing it back with them the next day. That experience, coupled with inspiration from watching his daughters play with bottles in the bath, became the essence of Flessenboot, the components of which are all handmade, packaged and sold from Hovers' workshop. "My mother even stitches the sails," he says.

Anyone who has bought a toy for a child, only to find they're more interested in playing with the box, can appreciate Hovers' line of enquiry for Flessenboot. Its design tempts the imagination; its art is in inviting play rather than instructing it. "There has to be a part of the toy that people can fill in for themselves," he says. "And there has to 
be something recognisable; something timeless." But you could say that the toys which have truly stood the test of time haven't been designed at all. No one lays claim to the paper plane or cat's cradle as pieces of design. Where do we draw the line? "People have told me this is too simple," Hovers says. "But I don't think of it as design. It's just 
a playful thought. I think some designers can take things too seriously. They are afraid to be light-hearted."

Before Flessenboot there was Archetoys, a range of miniature metal vehicles Hovers began producing in 2008. Each Archetoy is a combination of various oblong metal profiles, welded together and painted to resemble a vehicle form. "I made one car and then thought if I make it white and longer and put a red cross on it, it becomes an ambulance," Hovers says. He continued tweaking that form into a series of recognisable types: a double-decker bus, a pink Cadillac, a tank and even a hearse. At just 3cm across, they recall the Dinky toys that Hovers played with as a child. He imposed limits on the types and sizes of steel sections to give the series its uniformity.

Like Flessenboot, the pleasure of Archetoys lies in reduction: the ways they allude to a vehicle's form and use without being so explicit as to spoil the game. Hovers asks: "How do you take a car and all its details, and then reduce it to its essence? The balance between reality and imagination – I think that's the art."

At around €150 (£132) per car, Archetoys aren't cheap. And now that Hovers has stopped making them, they're more likely to end up as collectables for design lovers than children's playthings. The price reflects the fact that they are handmade in small quantities; each is an original. But he sees this in a positive light. Archetoys are too expensive to throw away, unlike most of the cheap imports from China, India and Sri Lanka. He believes the fads and trends of disposable toys lead to an unsustainable consumer attitude. "The toys I had as a child were precious. You'd keep them, be proud of them. Nowadays people want something for a few months and then it's over. These toys are so cheap that when they break we just buy a new one."

The prevalence of a throwaway culture isn't Hovers' only gripe with the products of the mainstream toy industry. He's fussy about their brash colouring and loathes Barbie pink, in particular. "Why don't they use a very nice French pink?" he complains. "Presumably someone at Mattel chose that pink because they think it's glamorous." His preference for certain colours goes beyond a question of personal taste. The colours of mass-produced toys are dictated by economy; the more commonplace colours (like bright orange made from cadmium pigments) being cheaper to produce.

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For authenticity, Hovers picked the colours for Archetoys from the RAL chart, an industrial standard first devised in Germany in 1927. RAL codes were conceived to improve colour-matching for everything from vehicles and machinery to traffic signs and military clothing, before they became the standard in architecture and design. "Wood-working machines would all be made the same type of green," Hovers explains, "so you could identify what they were." The RAL colours of Hovers' Archetoys are a homage to the legibility of the system and the associations it has engendered in us. "Every child knows that a fire car is red with blue lights," he says. "The system is very clear and that's what I like."

Legibility is a key part of Hovers' furniture designs, too. "You should be able to look at something and see how it is made. I like to see that it is honest." Fixed (2010) is a wooden chair put together with screws and braced using a piece of twisted colourful twine across the back and front. Stoklamp (2008) is a minimal floor lamp that makes a feature of its flex by running it down a purpose-made groove in the wooden stand. And Ingewikkeld (which means both "complicated" and "wrapped" in Dutch) is a stool that connects with no glue or screws but instead 110 metres of twine, providing the piece with structure and also decoration.

The simple approach is also important for longevity and sustainability. "I'm always thinking about what my products will end up as after they're used," says Hovers. "A lot of products cover up how they are made but it's very important that you can see how to repair it when it is broken."

Hovers is something of a rarity in design. In an industry often fascinated with the complex possibilities of rapid prototyping and digital design, he upholds the old-fashioned values of simplicity and hard work. "The computer is of course very important. It's a great instrument but it makes us forget what design is all about," he says. "To be a designer you have to be a maker. The real thing should always be more impressive than the rendering, not the other way round." Nor is he interested in putting his designs into mass production, or moving to the city to attract more interest."I'm not trying to change the world. To see someone smile when they see my cars or boats, to see that my idea works – that's enough for me."

 

Image

Raoul Kramer

 

Words

Riya Patel

quotes story

I don't think of it as design. It's just a playful thought. Designers take things too seriously. They are afraid of being light-hearted

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