One of the most endearing things about my wife's mother tongue is the use of the suffix ‘je’, which can seemingly be added to the end of almost any word to make it appear small. And so in Dutch you have ‘kindje’, meaning a small child, ‘pintje’, my favourite example, indicating a small beer, or ‘konijntje’ denoting a small rabbit. It was the latter which would lend itself to the name of Dick Bruna's most famous creation, ‘Nijntje’, or as we know her, ‘Miffy’.
Miffy, a small rabbit drawn with heavy graphic lines, simple shapes and primary colours, was created in 1955 after Bruna had been telling his one-year-old son, Sierk, stories about a little rabbit they had seen earlier in the dunes, while on holiday at Egmond aan Zee. Miffy became a female after Bruna decided that he wanted to draw a dress and not trousers on his rabbit.
Describing how he worked, Bruna said, ‘for a book of 12 pictures I make at least a hundred’. Each drawn with a paintbrush, specially trimmed by Bruna. As he got older, and despite the success of all his books, he said it got harder and harder to get the image exactly right. Miffy’s eyes and mouth were especially problematic: “That’s all you have. With two dots and a little cross I have to make her happy, or just a little bit happy, a little bit cross or a little bit sad – and I do it over and over again. There is a moment when I think yes, now she is really sad. I must keep her like that.”
Bruna was born in Utrecht, the son of Johanna Erdbrink and Albert Bruna, and the intention was that he should join the family publishing firm, AW Bruna & Zoon. But Bruna, having been sent to Paris and London to learn about publishing and bookselling, including a brief spell working for WH Smith, opted instead to train as a graphic designer. He had been a keen artist throughout his childhood, especially during the second world war years, when his family lived in the Dutch countryside and he did not go to school, educating himself instead by studying the art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. He studied briefly at art school in Amsterdam for six months before leaving to join the family firm in 1951.
It was at AW Bruna & Zoon where he would illustrate and design thousands of book covers, posters and promotional materials for his father's publishing company. His most popular designs graced the covers of the ‘Zwarte Beertjes’ series of books. Well known among his designs are those for Simenon's ‘Maigret’ books, typified by graphic silhouettes of a pipe on various backgrounds.
Bruna died in Utrecht last week on 16th February, at the age of 89, leaving behind a vast body of work for future generations to enjoy.
With a two year old, our house is stocked with Miffy toys, books, games and other objects the enthusiasm for this character has spawned. I just thought this was a good opportunity to acknowledge our love for his work and what he has given us all.