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Alexander Calder

Play again, Calder: Artist's toys back in production

A French company is re-producing toys by the inventor of the mobile

A set of wooden toys designed by Alexander Calder in the 1920s is now back in production, by Vilac, a French toy firm based in a small village in the Jura. These toys were originally designed for Calder’s grandchildren, who have approved the re-edition and taken a personal interest in the re-launch.

The toys include a kangaroo, cow and particularly wonderful fish, all of which are pulled and operated by string, which results in delightful motion, the fish wobbling on its wheels with uncanny realism.

Calder began making “articulated toys” in Paris in 1926 to support himself, and went into business to sell them commercially with a Serbian toy manufacturer who disappeared. Calder subsequently exhibited these toys in Paris, at the Salon des Humanistes and Galerie Jacques Seligmann. Then, in the autumn of 1927, on returning to America, he designed a series of “Action-toys” for Gould Manufacturing of Osh Kosh, Wisconsin.

These string-activated “pull-toys” included a rowboat, bucking cow, ducks and skating bear, and in 1929 Calder received a royalty payment of $94.26. That same year Calder published in Paris Montparnasse an account of his love for toys: “I spent my childhood being enthusiastic about toys and string and always a junkman. When I was a kid of eight my father and mother gave me some tools and I began to do everything it took to augment my toys.”

Vilac are a perfect match with Calder. They have produced high quality, lacquered wood toys for toddlers since 1911, and since 1985 have been directed by Hervé Halgland, who is as passionate about art as play. Mr Halgland has introduced toy lines associated with artists as varied as Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Hervé di Rosa, Matisse and Warhol, not to mention the distribution of a whole range of wooden objects by his friend Keith Haring.

A regular visitor to New York, for its galleries as well as toy fairs, Mr Halgland is an active art collector who has bought fine works directly from Jean-Michel Basquiat as well as from abstract painters such as Paul Pagk and Beauford Delaney or Venice Biennale star Fabrice Hybert.

The Vilac web site quotes Roland Barthes on the magic of wooden toys and Mr Halgland’s sophisticated touch is evident everywhere, from the exclusive series of Petit Prince toys to the boutique in Tokyo, which Mr Halgland visited by special invitation of President Chirac himself.

The Vilac version of Calder’s toys will be widely available by the summer.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 136 May 2003