Frenchman Thierry Bourret explains why he launched the Slow Toy Awards
Dissatisfied with the poor 'play value' of many modern toys, Frenchman Thierry Bourret launched an annual award to promote designs that fire up imagination, writes Victoria Finlay
Three years ago a major British toy fair identified the best toy of the year. It was a plastic dog that defecated plasticine.
That was the point at which Frenchman Thierry Bourret, now 53, decided to start the Slow Toy Awards.
"I thought it was an odd toy and could not really believe it was the best toy of the year," says Bourret. "So I wrote a blog about it, and I said that we have a Slow Food movement, which is about long-term enjoyment and quality … so why should there not be slow toys?"
There was so much interest, that he started the annual Slow Toy Awards.
Any toy manufacturer is welcome to enter its toys into the contest, which is judged by a panel that includes retailers, journalists and parent bloggers.
The six winners are given space in a prestigious department store in London (last year it was Selfridges, this year it is Harrods). The awards have attracted so much attention that Bourret has been contacted by three major retailers about next year's awards, including one which is much better known for producing toys with batteries and using plenty of plastic.
This year the winners include an old-fashioned tricycle for toddlers; a Swedish birch veneer pram with a simple, carved red body and bright yellow wheels (or white with red wheels); and a wooden train set that winds its way past sturdy wooden models of world monuments like the Eiffel Tower.
Also on the winners' podium is the East Coast Activity Cube, that has creative games on each of its faces, including a small xylophone, a chalk board and a peg maze; a wooden fire brigade; and a set of wooden shapes called TWIG.
The slow toy for older children this year is the Meccano Multimodels 15 set, which enables young engineers to build 15 different machines, including a bulldozer and a crane.
"The trouble with many construction sets today, including Lego, is that they are designed to make just one thing. And then when you've made it, you've finished with the toy. And you have been building something from the imagination of someone else," says Bourret, who is himself a toy distributor but doesn't enter any of his own products for the awards.
"We really wanted to emphasise the kinds of toys that allow children to make their own worlds."
Beyond the obvious lack of complicated electronics, how does Bourret define a slow toy?
Bourret pauses. "I think it is a toy that is well made, probably from wood and metal, and nicely designed." But for him the key is its longevity. "If you come across it 20 or 30 years later, you will be so happy to see it again and your children will want to play with it too," he says.
Several years ago he had such a moment, and it changed his life. At the time, he was a senior manager with Hitachi. He was doing well but was bored in his work. He went, with his wife and young son, on holiday to his grandparents' house near Vichy in central France and by chance came across a blue scooter he had played on as a child.
His first thought was what a shame that there weren't many toys like that any more. He remembered how even when he was small, he was allowed to scoot all around the neighbourhood.
"We used to call it un paté de maison, or one block … and I went round and round so many times," he says.
As he watched his son scooting around the garden, he had a thought. Toys like that must be being made somewhere in the world: what if he were to distribute them?
The image of the scooter stayed with him when he went back to work.
In December 2008 he left Hitachi. A month later, he and a business partner had founded a company, which they called Asobi, meaning play in Japanese, and within a few weeks they were buying toys from all around the world and distributing them in Britain.
His mission was to find well-crafted, good quality toys with plenty of "play value", such as cardboard castles that you paint yourself, superhero design kits, teepees for imagining your own adventures and naturalist equipment packs.
Founding Asobi has been an adventure and has taught him many things about the industry. One thing is that although most toys are made in large factories in Asia, that isn't the whole story.
He learned that traditional French toys created by the company Vilac are made in the Jura Mountains on the Swiss-French border. In the winter there's not much work, unless you're in the skiing business, so people from farming communities come to the factory once the snow starts and collect the bright wooden or plastic parts. They take them home and assemble them by hand before returning the completed toys in the spring.
You feel, working with them, that you are not just buying a product, you are also supporting a way of life for many villages, he says.
His company is something of a family business as well. His 10-year-old son Remi has a business card and a job.
"He is chief toy tester," Bourret says.
One of the things that has surprised him about the toy business is how far you have to think ahead. Big companies sign off for Christmas by December the previous year.
"We've been planning for Christmas 2014 for a while already," he says.
He wouldn't reveal what he was planning for 2014, but it is safe to say they will be well made, brightly coloured and they won't leave unpleasant plasticine deposits underneath your Christmas tree.