Polly Pocket co-creator Chris Taylor reveals why he entered the toy industry
Hi Chris, thank you so much for making time for this interview.
No problem, I’m really looking forward to it!
To get us started, how did you and your business partner Chris Wiggs meet?
Chris and I met at the Central School of Art and Design. We were both studying industrial design and we got on very well from the beginning. We had a great partnership with our combination of skills. We were very lucky that we had a fantastic year…
In what way?
There were only about 24 of us so it was very cohesive. We all listened to each other and did stuff together. If you get a bad year it’s just like – ugh! No one listens to each other… Have you had a good year? You know what a difference it can make when you have a good year.
Absolutely, it makes such a difference. It worked out well for you! What happened next?
Pretty much as soon as we left college, Chris set up on his own. I went out to Australia, and I was working out there when Chris came out. And because he had so much work he wanted to see if I would join him. Well, I said yes – but by the time I got back to the UK, all the work had dried up! We had to start again from scratch…
We were working on all sorts of industrial products, starting off with vacuum-forming machines. Chris had developed a low-cost machine. But then we had a big American client ask us to design incontinence pads.
Yes, we were one of the first consultancies to work out how to combine starch super absorbers into nappies. You ended up with this super-absorbent product. The problem with that, of course, is that we would’ve ended up becoming incontinence-pad specialists… Which wasn’t really what we wanted! We wanted something a bit more fun!
I’m curious then: how do you go from incontinence pads to toys?!
We knew that the only business where you could get a royalty was toys. In all other design departments, you get an hourly rate. We couldn’t see how we could have the indulgent lifestyle we wanted on an hourly rate! So really the toy industry came by default.
Chris had already won a prize in a toy competition earlier, so we knew an agent, Tom Kremer. He became our agent for many years. We bought Lambton Place in Notting Hill and that became our home for Origin Products for most of our toy-working years. Where your dad worked for many years! Did you ever visit us there?
It’s a possibility, but I think I was too little to remember! I do remember playing with Polly Pocket though…
Well, it’s worth knowing that we’d done several toys, including a successful Rubik’s Cube called The Orb. Then we met Torquil Norman from Bluebird toys. We got on so well that we ended up designing loads of stuff for him. Polly Pocket came from there.
Well, I for one am very glad Polly Pocket was invented! Let’s turn now to the I.D.I.O.T. Award. Am I right in thinking that the awards were part of the Toy Inventors Dinner?
Yes… So every year in February, around London Toy Fair, we had a Toy Inventors Dinner. It was an informal get together where we could talk about problems in the industry and what we could do about them. I didn’t actually go to the first one, but every year it was held at a new venue. There’s a list of all the different venues which makes for a really nice souvenir. Each year, we would put out a list on the table of all the previous winners, and all the different venues. It was always really interesting to see all the different places across London that it had been held.
It sounds like the venues were really important. Do you remember where you held yours?
The first one I did was at the Serpentine in Hyde Park. I wanted to do something a bit – well, not exhibitionist… But something really great. You know, I like to wow people! The first thing I did was I went to Covent Garden to look for street performers to do an entertainment act. There was this one absolutely incredible comedian, a combination of comedy and stunts – so I hired him. He was absolutely brilliant, and he was Eddie Izzard. He was an unknown then. He was just a nobody, another street performer at the time. But how amazing!
Oh wow, that’s an incredible story!
I know! Who would’ve thought? So then I thought: what’s another reason people have an annual meeting? To win some sort of trophy or industry award! And I thought: well, we haven’t got an industry award. I wanted it to be lighthearted so I said: “How can I get the name idiot into its initials?” I said, “Let’s do International Designers and Inventors of Toys – that’ll work!” So that’s how I came up with the name.
I love the name!
Well, the toy industry is a fun industry, so it needed to reflect that. And it’s funny how something which sounds derogatory actually is endearing. Chris and I had won another award called the Crucible of Creativity for one of the plastic briefcases we designed. And actually, I hadn’t thought about that – but the I.D.I.O.T. was a counter to the… Well… I don’t want to offend the Crucible of Creativity, but it didn’t feel appropriate for us. We needed something lighthearted to reflect the industry.
So, tell me about the badge!
Well then, we needed a trophy. We made a round badge with the name I.D.I.O.T. on it, put on a red ribbon and sprayed it gold. It was a cheap, nothingy trophy, but it meant a lot.
How did you decide who the first I.D.I.O.T. was going to be?
We shortlisted the people we thought might win it and we decided on Torquil Norman. It served us well to give it to him, but also Torquil is a very entertaining character. I knew he’d be able to make something up on the spot for an acceptance speech – and it was absolutely brilliant. He declared himself delighted to be the first I.D.I.O.T.
The awards have become very coveted. In fact, one of my friends said in his acceptance speech that it was one of the proudest moments of his whole career. How special is that? Something that was just a whim could become so endearing. You know, people still covet the awards – and past I.D.I.O.T.s show up wearing their badges with pride.
It must feel so special to have created something like that.
Absolutely. There’s an important lesson in there. If you just put your mind to something and do it with conviction, it’s surprising how often other people pick up on it and you can bring something to life. Our role as designers is always to be looking for opportunities when you can do stuff like that.
After that, the I.D.I.O.T. just took on a life of its own. There was a mix of girls and boys who won the award, so it was very unisex – even though the toy industry was very male dominated at the time.
That’s always good to hear! So, am I right in thinking that you and Chris Wiggs won your I.D.I.O.T. for Polly Pocket?
Well, actually you didn’t win one for any particular toy. It was more about success in the industry or something you’d given to the industry. Just for being a decent soul. At the start, we honoured some of the older guys. Eddy Goldfarb was one of the oldest toy inventors when we gave it to him. We just wanted to honour those who came before us.
Chris and I won the award when we weren’t organising the dinner. It would’ve been inappropriate otherwise. Although I did consider awarding it to myself a few times! And it was very nice to receive one.
I bet! I’ve also heard about the Mini I.D.I.O.T. Awards…
Yes. It’s worth remembering that at the start the Inventors Dinner it was only about 20 people but then it became 70, 90, 100 people showing up. One award wasn’t really enough. Everyone wanted an I.D.I.O.T.! So we introduced the Mini I.D.I.O.T. Awards. There were three or four each year.
I love that!
And you know, all the guys at Fuse are honorary I.D.I.O.T.s, as are Chris and I. Fuse for me is just like walking into Origin… It has a lovely sense of wellbeing, with all the gnomes and elves working away. There’s just a wonderful sense of variety and creativity.
It’s lovely you say that because – in the interview I did with Tim Rowe – he mentioned how Fuse wanted to recreate the same atmosphere that you had at Origin.
Well, it’s a great honour to hear they’ve helped foster that.
We’d best wrap up this up but thank you very much for taking the time, Chris. I’ve loved learning all about the I.D.I.O.T. Award and the wonderful backstory. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you!
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