Sites of Interchange

“Play, Design, Politics: Technical Toys, Design Policies and British-German Exchanges in the first half of the 20th Century”, presented in the conference Sites of Interchange: Modernism, Politics, and Culture in Britain and Germany, 1919-1951, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 2-3 November 2018.


The Sites of Interchangeconference aims to examine the entangledcultural relationship between Britain and Germany in the first decades of the twentieth century. Toy design may seem an unlikely area in which to study this complicated relationship, it is however less surprising when we consider that childhood and play have acquired increasing importance in thesecond half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, to the extent that the 20th century has been termed the “Century of the Child”. The design and production of technical toys, more specifically construction sets, enabled Britain and Germany to explore technology and mechanisation, which fascinated and overwhelmed both societies. Play and toys were used to test ideas related to technological change and became yet another area in which the antagonistic relationship between the two countries unfolded. The pre-WWI dominance of Germany in the domain of toy production and trade gave way to more dynamic British activities in the interwar years which were fuelled not only by the weakness of Germany in the aftermath of WWI, but also invigorated by the move from Germany to Britain of many persecuted toy producers and manufacturers, including F. Bing, S. Kahn, P. Ullmann, and A. Katz. Toy production constituted a domain of economic competition between the two countries but also an arena for the promotion of nationalist ideas. British-made Lott’s Bricks, which imitated and succeeded as market leader the formerly dominant German-made Richter’s Anker Steinbaukasten (Anchor Blocks), is the most characteristic case in point, as Lott’s products emphatically claimed Englishness in design, production and consumption. Design issues reflected wider concerns in the complex relationship between Britain and Germany also beyond WWII. In 1946, German Industrial design was studied systematically through a secret government mission organized by the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee. At the same time, West Germany examined and imitated a number of British solutions related to design reform in industry, especially the founding of the Council of Industrial Design in Great Britain, an organisation which elevated industrial design to a matter of national concern. Throughout the first decades of the 20th century, design issues and specifically the design of construction sets illustrate the complex exchanges between Britain and Germany and the underlying values, aspirations, and fears of the societies that generated them.