From delicate dollhouses to globally recognized puzzles to small animal figurines, the vast variety of toys that have emerged from Sweden over time are more than just playthings. Predominantly crafted from wood, they stand as refined designs and reflect innovation inspired by a material chosen simply because it was freely available. As Sweden is home to heavily forested areas, Swedes have been carving wooden toys for centuries, but a current exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery explores in-depth this history of design and handiwork for the first time. Featuring over 200 years of childhood amusements, Swedish Wooden Toys provides an extensive look at the production and trade of these items that even became part of a national identity.
As co-curators Susan Weber and Amy F. Ogata write in the introduction to the exhibition’s catalogue, published by Yale University Press, “In the early twentieth century, the ordinary wooden toy achieved new recognition as an agent in the training and educating of children, as an emblem of Swedish handicraft, and finally as a symbol of Sweden itself.” More than entertainment, these objects also shaped creative skills and education as well as fueled the economy — and the proliferation of wooden designs that endured by constantly evolving into new sources of amusement revealed an inventiveness unique to the country.
Toys shaped like horses were particularly common and are today still associated with the Scandinavian country. The exhibition actually has an entire section devoted to them that features over 30 examples, from small models to rocking horses. Popular as souvenirs today, small toys known as Dala horses — named for the Dalarna region where they originated — illustrate a devotion to handiwork as local artisans carved then hand-painted them, often with intricate and vividly colored patterns. Some woodcarvers even built reputations from their signature skill and styles.
The rocking horse is another national favorite, with Sweden’s first toy manufacturer Gemla becoming famous soon after its founding in 1866. Some of the most elaborate examples boast real horsehair; at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, one white stallion balanced on green rockers also flaunts glass eyes, leather ears, and riding gear (affordable, naturally, only to the wealthy). Rocking horses weren’t just for amusement, however; they also taught youngsters balance, as Rune Bondjers, a curator at the Dalarnas museum writes in one of the catalogue’s many essays. Swedish Wooden Horses also features a number of photographs of children clinging to their wooden equines, demonstrating the toy’s popularity — but there’s also a rocking bull and a rocking rabbit on view, introducing some fun variations on the theme.
Perhaps the most impressive transformations of wood are exemplified by dollhouses, over a dozen of which are included in the exhibition. Many were adapted from objects originally intended for other functions, from simple cigar boxes and wooden crates to large display cases. One highly intricate, four-storied one that dates to the early 20th-century even features a functioning elevator made out of the metal innards of a clock and electric lighting in all its rooms. Crafted by one very patient and generous John Carlsson for his younger sister, it also housed a telephone that rang; a mini typewriter, sewing machine, and chandelier; and 30 dolls. On display is also the earliest known dollhouse in Scandinavia, a gift to Princess Hedvig Sophia from her mother that its maker fitted in the style of a cabinet.
While many of these works were made by individuals, as industrialization took hold of Europe, more toys were mass produced starting in the second half of the 19th century. Still, wood endured as a primary material for Swedish toy manufacturers, and many toys were still partially handmade. Build-it-yourself playthings also proliferated, with some periodicals even publishing instructions and cardboard plans that children could cut out and construct into houses, bridges, and more.
Wooden toys are practical due to the durability of the material, but their enduring desirability even as the Swedish toy trade industrialized is a testament to their timelessness. They’ve enjoyed a global presence since the first half of the 20th century, and while technologies have altered some of them, you’ll likely still find simple wooden products by companies such as BRIO in many local toy stores. Aside from existing as refined and functional craftwork, wooden toys remind that we can still find delight in the simplest of playthings — an especially refreshing thought in an age when dolls like Hello Barbie exist.
Swedish Wooden Toys continues at Bard Graduate Center Gallery (18 W. 86th St, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through February 28, 2016.