Designer Libuše Niklová contributed to one of the major chapters in the history of modern Czech design through her collaboration with Fatra, a brand founded in Napajedla that has engaged in plastic processing and the production of plastic products since 1935. During the '60s and '70s, the designer created dozens of colorful plastic children's toys for Fatra, which cleverly used its own patents. While we take this material for granted today, plastic only became widely available after World War II, and Niklová's work was groundbreaking as it altered the expected and stereotyped perception of children's toys—at that time, they were mostly wooden and made in limited batches. Now, Fatra is using her immensely popular and innovative toys as inspiration by collaborating with contemporary product designers on playthings for today's kids.
Many of Niklová's objects became iconic, such as her 1963 Toy Cat which could produce sound due to its accordion body. Thanks to its material, it became one of the first mass-produced toys in the country—and could even be used in a bathtub. In the early '70s, Niklová also designed a series of inflatable toys in the forms of giraffe, buffalo, elephant, pig and other animals; their larger scale also added a furniture function. Niklová's main contribution lies in her extraordinary sense of shape and structure; only a few cuts of rubber and heated joints could create abstract or practical shapes of animals. Her Fatra toys became a must-have for many kids in Czechoslovak households during that period.
Niklová's work was summarized and presented in an international context by her retrospective exhibition, prepared by the curator Tereza Bruthansová in 2010 for the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. In collaboration with Czech visual artist Petr Nikl (who is Niklová's son), Bruthansová prepared a comprehensive exhibition presenting most of Niklová's work for the first time. Repetition of the exhibition was arranged in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris one year after. Her work engages major global institutions including MoMA, which exhibited some of her toys in two curatorial exhibitions: "Century of a Child" in 2012 and "Designing a Modern Women" which is on display until 5 October 2014.
Fatra discontinued the plastic toys in 2000 because they could no longer keep up with the competition from Chinese manufacturers. Fortunately, not long ago, they began collaborating with contemporary product designers to create an entirely new collection of inflatable toys. They approached Czech product designers Jan Čapek, Jerry and Anna Kozovi of Atelier SAD and graphic designer Zuzana Lednická from Studio Najbrt, who re-interpreted the toys from the '70s and created contemporary versions of them according to Niklová's original shape and design principles.
Jan Čapek designed an inflatable race car—whose cigar-shaped form is inspired by the body of Niklová's Giraffe—and a playful pit bull terrier. Jerry and Anna Kozovi created a three-legged goat and a tractor that complement the existing collection in a very playful way. Of the challenge in designing an inflatable toy, they said, "‘It was interesting since we were getting nowhere with the usual processes, such as visualization, 3D models, paper models, solid models—all of that failed. We had to create patterns and weld them flush."
Zuzana Lednická then added a new graphic design for children's inflatable beach balls, which were also designed by Niklová during the 1970s. This exciting new collection debuted in full at Prague's Designblok late last year and is now available online and in select stores. The re-issued inflatable animal toys are currently on sale from MoMA Store at a discounted $25.
Images courtesy of Fatra