The man who made Miffy

Dick Bruna’s Fish needs no explanation. It holds, one might say, the essence of fish-ness. It was first drawn more than 45 years ago. It is as minimalist as a Mondrian, as defined as a Matisse, as understandable as a traffic light. Bruna’s Bird is the same. A bird, its wings and beak open, flies. His House has no door and only one window, but it too shares a universal clarity.

Nailed to a beam in Dick Bruna’s top-floor studio in the quaint Dutch town of Utrecht are the “style guides”: giant A2 pages showing all the things he has ever created. Kite, Bird, Mouse, Pear, King; all of Bruna’s crisp creations are there, just as he drew them, so they can be accurately reproduced in books, artwork and toys around the world.

His most famous creation has been recorded in hundreds of poses. Miffy, the little white rabbit who is never seen in profile, but always faces the reader with a slightly quizzical, disproportionately large, yet perfectly designed, face, was invented in 1955 by Bruna to entertain his young son during a rainy family holiday.

She soon became the subject of a book. Then Bruna thought about translating the book and trying the overseas market. But her Dutch name – Nijntje – was a bit tricky, so for the rest of the world, she was given a new name, Miffy. Could Bruna have predicted what he had invented? Hardly. Yet by any measure, Miffy was a publishing sensation. To date, Miffy books have sold more than 85 million copies, in more than 50 languages.

As for the merchandise created around her: let us merely state that Miffy’s retail earning power, per year, is about $300m. Per year. This spring, giant fields of tulips designed in the shape of her face, will bloom across Japan, and Dick Bruna’s House, a Miffy museum in Bruna’s home town of Utrecht, will have been open for five years. The simple line drawing of a small rabbit has become a commercial giant.

Unlike Fish and Bird, whose classic shapes have never altered, Miffy has undergone a few modifications over the years. Her ears have plumped out and her face has widened. She is less of a 1960s Twiggy rabbit and more of a little girl rabbit. Bruna says this is because he draws her fresh, every time. “And every time she has to be better than before,” he says, smiling.

Dick Bruna is 83. He works on his hand-drawn universe every single day of the week. Each morning he rises at 5am in his house that he shares with Irene, his wife of 59 years. He will draw her a little picture, a talisman for the day (on the day we met, he had drawn her a flower with a smiling face in it). After breakfasting, he cycles to his nearby studio. When he is on his own, and in his studio, he will start to draw. After the drawing has been done, he will start to paint. Alone. Bruna’s empire may be global, and worth millions, but he is the sole creator of it. Not for Bruna the factory-style output of Warhol or Hirst, where assistants help the master create his look. Each and every single one of the black outlines of the mouth of Miffy, beak of Bird or fin of Fish has been drawn by Bruna with a paintbrush dipped delicately in black paint. Unlike Jean de Brunhoff, who decreed that his children’s creation Babar the Elephant could be continued posthumously (by his son Laurent), Bruna has decreed that his must be the only hand behind the work. When he ceases to be, so will Miffy.

He knew from the age of four that art was to be his destiny. His father ran the publishing company AW Bruna & Zoon, and Bruna worked for it as a freelance designer. He could have become a director, but didn’t. His aptitude for business was as nothing compared with his zeal for illustrating posters and book covers. The company had recently started developing bookstands in Dutch railway stations, and Bruna designed elegant, punchy posters for the “Black Bear” series of paperback thrillers that ­decorated the railway advertising hoardings. “I wasn’t interested in administration,” he tells me. “It was drawing and writing books that I really valued.” He designed book covers for editions of Simenon’s Maigret and Leslie Charteris’s The Saint.

He had taken the perfect training, although art school was not the way. More important was his trip to Paris in 1945, at the age of 18. Postwar Paris was stricken and derelict, but it still had its great museum collections, and it was from frequent visits to the galleries that Bruna discovered the works of Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger. He was particularly struck by Matisse’s simple use of colour and Léger’s strident two-dimensional insistence on shapes, often outlined in black, and coloured in single planes.

“Matisse was so, so simple,” he says. “I was so impressed by him. His shapes leave room for the imagination. So it is with my drawings. I put away things that are unnecessary, so there is room for the imagination.”

Inevitably, he moved from illustrating the covers of other people’s books to creating his own. I say inevitably because Bruna, the son of a publisher, clearly grew up with an inherent grasp of the beauty of words, alongside the power of accompanying pictures. It is what keeps his vintage book covers, his Charteris and Simenon classics, so vivid.

Words, to Bruna, are beautiful in their own right; their presence, in the Helvetica typeface, a thing of artistic power. In his own books, the script, always in black Helvetica, is given an entire white page. The picture, always outlined in black, is always on the opposite page, in colour. This counterpoint – the black words on white, versus the black lines on colour – gives the books a formidable tension, and keeps the pages turning.

There were other innovations. He selected a reduced, square shape for his books, because he felt this made it easier for small hands to hold. The only exception was The Christmas Book (1963), doubly wide so a child could sit by a parent, and share the magic of the Nativity tale. On the flyleaf of each book is a special place for the name of the child.

Which was the first Miffy book in English? Bruna’s company says it was the one that deals with her birth, but Bruna thinks it is Miffy at the Seaside, translated into English in 1963 and an instant ­classic. I believe Bruna, largely because this was the first Miffy book that we had at home. I still have our copy, much battered, my name carefully inscribed in wobbly capitals on the flyleaf. After about 43 years of family life, Bruna’s creations stand up well; the pages in my old Miffy books are still bound in the spine, and their tough board covers remain unbent.

In Bruna’s studio a tall bookshelf is filled with hundreds of different Bruna books, in dozens of different languages. I offer to help him tidy it up. “No, no,” he laughs. “I like it how it is.” Pulling books out at random provides a nostalgic ride straight into a childhood of the 1960s and 1970s. Copies of Little Red Riding Hood in German sit alongside editions of The Fish in Polish. Cinderella, Snow White, Hop-o’-my Thumb – they are all there. I fancy that Bruna could be seen as part of the tradition of Andersen and Grimm, a key player in the continued life of middle-European folklore and fairy stories.

Bruna laughs and shakes his head. “I wouldn’t say I am as great as the Brothers Grimm, but I am part of a tradition of illustrators such as Schulz [the late, great creator of the Peanuts strip]. I went to see Schulz one day when he was drawing, and his hand was trembling slightly,” he continues. “When my hand starts to tremble, that, that will be the end. My children” – he has three – “will not be allowed to carry on my work. They have to make their own work.”

The importance of making your own work – and not copying anyone else – is a belief held by Bruna so strongly it almost has a sacred significance for him. He is particularly withering about the Japanese feline creation Hello Kitty, whose similarity to Miffy is so striking that many innocent bystanders assume they are from the same stable. Once you start examining the two products, however, you begin to see why such a thought would be heresy to Bruna. Hello Kitty is usually dressed in pink. Pink is very much not a Miffy colour. Plus, she has no mouth, while Miffy has a highly expressive cross. Miffy has a character and stories; she is viewed by her creator almost as a little girl formed with a black paintbrush.

Hello Kitty, meanwhile, is basically a marketing campaign. Designed originally by Yuko Shimizu, Hello Kitty is owned by the Japanese company Sanrio and arrived some 20 years after Miffy – as a decoration on a plastic purse. From then on, the two have been at loggerheads within the valuable market of small, white, minimalistic animals with an outsized head.

“It is never good to make things like somebody else is doing,” says Bruna, fixing me with his very blue eyes. “And the Hello Kitty ... people ... they don’t realise how difficult, how very difficult it is to make a real character. One drawing of Miffy can take me a whole day. A whole day, to get the angle of the head right, or the position of a tear.”

In terms of punishing Sanrio, tears were not enough. Bruna may look like a twinkly, harmless old chap, but when he suspects plagiarism, he is a bear in more than just name. Originally, his lawyers didn’t approach Sanrio. Hello Kitty was a kitten, after all, not a rabbit; and furthermore, her empire was on the other side of the world. But when Sanrio had the nerve to start marketing a Hello Kitty sidekick – a little white rabbit in a purple dress called Cathy – on his home turf of Holland, Bruna eventually rose up and roared.

Last November Bruna’s copyright company Mercis took Sanrio to court, and won. The court ruled that Cathy had infringed the copyright for Miffy. Sanrio was told to stop making, selling and marketing Cathy goods in the Benelux countries, and ordered to pay €25,000 a day in the event of non-compliance, up to €2m.

Bruna is evidently still deeply irritated by the saga. His fans constantly send him homemade Miffy toys, Miffy origami, Miffy sculptures, and in one case, a giant, knitted, Miffy longboat. They are all on display in his studio, and Bruna clearly has great affection for them. That sort of homage is fine. Commercial homage, however flattering, is not. “Yes, well there were difficulties,” sniffs Bruna with reference to the Cathy affair. “But things are better now.”

Bruna even has his antennae out for legal outlets that mess around with Miffy. The licensing ­agreement is very strict. “When you judge your proofs they have to match exactly,” says the ­agreement, indicating the legal range of “Dick Bruna Basic Colours” to which all his products must adhere. His books are printed in Germany by a press whose tints satisfy Bruna’s exacting standards.

One senses that, for Bruna, the perfect Miffy is when she is in two dimensions, a series of colour planes alongside a system of black, hand-painted lines. Yet, three dimensions are what make the money, and so Miffy must exist as a cuddly toy. Even so, all the graspable merchandise – the cushions, egg cups and toys, the television show and the theatre productions (three Miffy musicals have been produced to date) – must abide by the colour chart and style guide. Everything, meaning several hundred products, is screened by Bruna’s people, if not Bruna himself. An idea showing Miffy waving a gun lasted just about long enough for Bruna to boot it out of the stratosphere.

Of course, it is this care and concern for his product which has made it so aesthetically sound, admired by designers from the fashion house Clements Ribeiro to the luggage giant Louis Vuitton, and at the same time, so commercially robust. Yet does Bruna care that this has made him one of the wealthiest citizens in Holland, if not Europe? There is a story about him walking down a street with a friend and remarking on the beauty of a Rolls-Royce gliding past. “But Dick,” said the friend, “you could buy a Rolls-Royce!” Bruna was astonished. “I could?” he said. “Dear Dick,” said the friend, “you could buy seven Rolls-Royces, in different colours, one for every day of the week. And have a driver.” At which Bruna just laughed.

He keeps his life almost as simple as his art. He cycles to his studio. He draws all day. It is the enduring power of Helvetica type positioned opposite the black brushstrokes of a drawing that is his motivation. “A child can own a book. More than a film, more than a show,” he says. “They write their name in it. You read it once to them. You read it twice. They learn everything about that book. Then they can read it to you. To give a child something like that, that is the point.”

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