All Original Toy Concepts, Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
In July of 1970, we moved to the country, leaving our former life in New York City, behind us. We had invested every penny of the royalties that the OSM had earned, in an enormous old brick schoolhouse that, according to the real estate ad in the NT Times, was “suitable for a nursing home or private residence.” They lied! Unfortunately, by the time we walked through the massive front doors of this untamed white elephant, the Outer Space Men were over. And we found ourselves camping out here, in the world’s biggest fixer upper, with no funds to fix it up with.
In spite of this, the first summer in our new home was lovely. We were having the time of our lives, wallowing in ignorance and the secondhand swimming pool I’d purchased for fifty dollars. With it came an ever-present crowd of friendly neighbors, eager to share this oasis of above ground luxury, three feet deep by ten foot wide.
Meanwhile, I set up a makeshift studio in the delightfully damp dark cellar, enjoying the fact that it was lovely and cool down there, when it was sweltering outside. Little did I realize that the ever present moisture, seeping up through the concrete floor, would soon make this workspace that seemed so comfortable in summer, uninhabitable in winter.
At Harry’s casual suggestion: "Why don't you try some preschool items?" I wracked my brain for bright ideas. And, over the course of six lackadaisical days each week, with frequent breaks to use the pool, I’d sketch out, at least, a baker’s dozen. Our premise was to keep these items clean and simple, and create preschool toys that were more elegantly designed than those that populated the popular, but busy world of Fisher Price. Then, on the seventh day, I’d travel to Harry’s house in New Jersey, where, amid the hubbub of six kids, popping in and out, inquiring, “Hey Pop, can I have five dollars?” I’d show him what I had come up with. Inevitably, he’d like a few ideas. And thus, the wheels would begin rolling on another pie in the sky project. Along the way, we acquired patents on a variety of items, and even actually produced a few.
When winter arrived, I was forced to move my drawing board upstairs. Once there, I never tried my hand at preschool toys again. And so, the drawings that you are about to see were all created, throughout that first idyllic summer in the country. Over the past fort-eight years, many of these sketches have either been thrown away, or misplaced. Nonetheless, a surprising number of them remain. Every time I search through the boxes of artwork that are stored in the crawl space behind my desk, I inevitably come across a few of these early attempts. Yesterday, I gathered all I could recover, and, in no particular order, I'll post them here.
Most of these drawings, like the rotating barber pole toy, above, are self-explanatory. Throughout designing these, I frequently relied upon the formula that stood me in good stead, in my days at Austen Display. I came to call it, “two dots and a smile.” Now, I realized that this design could be easily transformed into the Colorforms logo by simply filling in the upper lip.
There were two versions of this stacking toy, one sharp, above, and the other soft and rounded off, below. I recall that this was an idea the Harry took seriously. Whenever that was the case, he would send my drawing to a model shop in Pennsylvania, and have a model made. At this point in time, we both were only just beginning to discover what I was capable of doing. Later, working with Harry’s sons, called KISCOM, I would think nothing of making all prototypes myself. The full sized working model of one of these two stacking toys, I forget which version Harry chose, was made out of white plaster, but never progressed beyond that stage. Like many of the other prototypes that were made in those days, it disappeared along the way.
Here is an exercise in simplicity, a completely abstract stacking toy. The cup and ball design requires more dexterity and balancing ability than meets the eye.
This is another very basic concept, “Silly Sausages.” They link together, like the ever popular Pop -It Beads. Perhaps, these were a premonition of “The Weenies” that happened thirteen years later.
This Piggy Bank is one of those toys that were carried to the next step, in which a model was made. The colored drawing was lost, but the full colored prototype is still here.
It hung around my studio for forty-eight years. The toy is one of many that never proceeded beyond this stage. I took this photo yesterday.
Tipping the platform enables the people to roll or “tumble” around the town. Perhaps, it should have been called Tippy Town.
Could this actually happen, or was it only wishful thinking? This variation on the standard knocking block toy that used to fascinate me in kindergarten, is intended to steer the geometrically formed blocks, to enter the top and magically cross over, inside, to emerge from the corrisponding shapes on the sides.
This was another toy that was submitted to a prototype, meanwhile this look alike that showed only the graphics was mocked up by yours truly. It has been kicking around in the storage area behind my desk for forty-eight years.
I just took a good look at this, It’s actually a more interesting idea than I thought. When one toad stool is hammered down, another one pops up!
This one looks pretty much the same. I must have had frogs on the brain! The difference here is the fact that it’s a xylophone, or more correctly a glockenspiel. Each mushroom is actually a bell, and each one plays a different note.
This concept was called “Bell-e-rinas.” I assume that you get the idea!
The fact that this drawing survived is amazing. It was the origin of an item that actually happened. No one had ever made elliptical xylophone keys before. There was a mathematical formula to do it that was actually awarded a patent.
The few preschool toys that Colorforms actually manufactured came and went unnoticed. Toy jobbers that, in those days, played a key role as middlemen in the toy industry did not expect or need to see items like this from a company that was known for boxed activities. Furthermore, not every kid wanted to play a tune by bashing the head of a bumble bee against the metal petals of a flower, until the whole thing tumbled over, and disassembled with a clatter? This item was far from perfect!
This drawing was the origin of another item that actually happened. The "Inch Worm" who lives in this bright red apple is really a 2-foot tape measure! A press on the stem sends the inch worm gliding automatically back into his home. This action toy provides both a play and a learning experience.
These simple objects were intended to be made of foam rubber, simple and relatively indestructible. In the summer of 1970, this was an idea that we never looked at twice. Little did we realize that the bestselling Nerf Ball would be introduced by Parker Brothers, later the same year.
This very simple frame tray puzzle represented the outside of a house. A child could easily remove the oversized pieces to reveal what was hiding inside. Then, put them back again.
All the drawings here were boldly, some would say crudely, rendered on large pads of bond paper. I had to scan them in several pieces, and patch them back together. The “Puzzle People,” below, filled the entire 14”X17” sheet of paper. I drew them coming off the page.
Whatever was I thinking? God knows, why I came up with this exercise in cow stacking. I imagine the moon’s long nose extends right up these bovine butts. This idea must have been inspired by the poem, that goes: “I never saw a Purple Cow. I never hope to see one. Butt I can tell you, anyhow. I’d rather see than be one! ... Worry not! Theres no way this item would ever happen.
So many of the toy ideas I came up were simply the result of wishful thinking. I imagined a world, in which such simple toys as this could happen. Thus, even though, I knew that even Harry would not care for this idea, I sketched it anyway. The drawing was based on a charming set of soldiers that I felt compelled to purchase when I was living in France.
Even though, I had very little money, I could not resist these. They were not expensive. In Paris, circa 1958 there were toy stores that were full of amazing handmade playthings. America was strictly the land of plastic, while in Europe, toys that were hand fabricated out of wood were commonplace. In France, this was considered, “Manufacturing.”
“Car-Tunes?” This is a really quick sketch. Nonetheless, I thought it was a good idea. It shows the inner mechanism for a vehicle that would essentially be a music box on wheels. A flexible rubber belt could pluck out a song, whenever it is pushed along.
This is a walking Colorforms clown and his friend. They represent another toy that was on its way to happening. I actually made up a model of the clown, myself, using paper, with a Styrofoam ball for his head. It’s been in the spare room in the cellar, for Forty-five years. A few months ago, I carried it upstairs. Now I can’t find it. If I ever do, I’ll add it here.
This is a diagram that shows how the toy might be constructed.
Last of all, here is the picture perfect prototype that Colorforms had made by the model shop in PA. This was photographed in the grass outside the cellar, on that first summer in the country. Then I sent it to Colorforms, and it was never seen again.
There were many more of these simple preschool toys. The doodle below, gives an idea what they were all about. The drawings, themselves, are gone. Meanwhile, the entire preschool project was petering out. By the time winter arrived, it was essentially over. I had moved my studio out of the cellar, and through a series of circumstances, found myself working on innovations and variations of the hitherto forbidden stick-on concept, known as Colorforms.
There are a few more concepts of a more abstract nature. The first of these is a kind of tapping toy called, “Over The Rainbow.” Hammering one side or the other sends a colored ball flying over the rainbow. It’s as simple as that!
The next two visualizations are more abstract in nature. They represent experiments in transparency. Looking through the Magic Window, enables a child, or an adult, for that matter, to see the world in magic color. the levers raise three colored filters, the three basic colors used in offset printing. By raising two at a time, it is possible to create secondary colors, ie. blue and yellow make green etc. Thus, the toy teaches the basic premise of color mixing.
The second variation of this semi-scientific plaything, puts forth a Colorforms Logo theme. At this time, Colorforms was still off limits to me, but I never stopped trying, albeit subtlety, to get my foot into the door.
This “Colorforms Chatterbox” was an early reading game. Each card displayed a simple word in the mouth shaped window. After a child reads the word, they can open the door to see the picture. This is both a reward, and a way of checking. I never stopped trying to sneak in the Colorforms logo theme.
Finally, I pulled out all the stops, in the form of light up Colorforms. Even after all these years, I still think this is a great idea! This would have used transparent vinyl plastic, so like the magic windows, above, the user could let the pieces overlap to mix secondary colors. A few years later, I was able to apply the concept of transparent plastic in a stick-on set with a Sesame Street theme.
With the above final drawing, my first summer of working in the cellar was over. Eventually, the area became a sort of workshop, used only occasionally. Forty-eight years later, this once desolate place, stark, dark, damp and empty, has become the crowded final resting place of half a lifetime’s worth of refuse and deteriorating memories. This transforming photo shows the space as it appeared on the day that I first saw it in 1970. Then, the image changes to reveal the way it looks today.