One of the interesting side-effects of going to the 2012 Toy Fair was seeing some connections, similarities, and trends across the different companies represented there.
There was a huge number of wooden toys, for instance. I wrote some thoughts on why I think this might be a few weeks ago – in short, a combination of nostalgia and eco-simplicity.
The thing that struck me at the toy fair though was just how similar a lot of these wooden toys are. I counted at least five stalls that had their own variation of a wooden 'vegetable market stall', for instance (upping the nostalgia value even more). The other ubiquitous product was the wooden train set.
There's a whole Wikipedia article about wooden toy trains, which goes into a lot of the history behind the tradition. In my head, wooden toy trains are inextricably linked with BRIO, the Swedish company whose trains and track I had a huge amount of as a child.
In a similar way to which there are now lots of Lego-compatible bricks (see Lego & trademarks), there has long been lots of BRIO-compatible trains and track sold by other companies (they're labelled as simply "compatible with other leading wooden rail systems").
Unlike Lego though, quite a few of the competitor companies' products looked at least as good as BRIO's, and actually some of BRIO's newest train sets looked a bit naff, with plastic-y hills and tunnels.
The BRIO product range that really did stand out though was their pull-along toys. This is another hugely popular product idea, but BRIO's version showed a level of design and quality that was far above everything else.
Pictures don't really do these toys justice, because what was magical about them was they way they moved as they're pulled. Each toy has a simple but ingenious purely mechanic movement which beautifully brings alive the creature that the toy depicts.
The giraffe, for instance, uses some cams on the feet to make it gently 'trot' and nod its head as it's rolled forward. I've watched plenty of giraffes walk around at Chester Zoo, and so I can say from experience that the designers have nailed the movement perfectly.
The ant, on the other hand, carries an egg on its back, as ants are want to do when building their colony. The magical thing here is that the egg is gently rotated about itself as the ant 'walks' forward. Again, a perfect depiction.
The bumble bee makes a gentle (non-annoying) buzzing sound as it's pulled, and rotates its wings at such speed that it looks like they're vibrating furiously. The duck 'flaps' its wings and quacks.
Possibly my favourite is the seal, which doesn't even have wheels, and instead does a perfect impression of doing the sort of paddle-assisted belly flop that seals do on ice.
You might wonder how I could be just this excited at such simple a toy (designed for 12-36 month old babies), but honestly, this level of design simplicity and perfection deserves to be celebrated.