Dick Bruna, creator of the Miffy books, talks about his life and work
Dick Bruna, the 80-year-old creator of miffy, the £150 million rabbit, leads a life of almost zen-like simplicity - or at least he would if it weren't for the Japanese groupies.
By Horatia Harrod
4:01PM BST 31 Jul 2008
Dick Bruna has already made tea and brought over biscuits, and now he leans forward from a chair in his airy, top-floor Utrecht studio. Spectacular white walrus whiskers twitch expectantly and behind a pair of oval spectacles, his eyes twinkle. This man - Geppetto made flesh - does not look or behave like the head of a global empire worth about £150 million annually. But Bruna is not your typical multi-millionaire mogul. No, he's the creator of Miffy, the world's most popular rabbit (and think for a moment of the competition for that title: Br'er, Peter, Roger...), whose modest adventures have sold more than 85 million storybooks, been translated into 40 languages, and whose clean, simple little face (two dots for eyes, a cross for a mouth) is recognised throughout the world. Hers is the first gaze I meet when I walk into the arrivals hall at Amsterdam airport, staring blankly from a shiny helium balloon. Later, I see her on pencils and building blocks, fridge magnets and school satchels, stitched together in plush and, most spectacularly, cast as a gold-plated statue.
None of this was Bruna's intent when he first sat down 53 years ago, during a wet and windy seaside holiday, to draw a story about a little white rabbit to amuse his young son. The Miffy brand did not develop out of the machinations of a cynical or greedy mind. In fact, in appropriate storybook fashion, it was a little bear who was responsible for everything that happened. This particular little bear was a Bruna drawing that caught the eye of the flamboyant Conservative politician Lord Alexander Hesketh, who put its image on the side of one of his racing cars. But then Bruna began to worry: 'I thought, what if the car is crashing? That's not very nice. I've made it for children and not for that.' He told a friend, who encouraged him to set up a company to protect the rights to his images. Thus Mercis - which employs ferocious teams of lawyers to protect the Miffy name - and the Bruna brand, were born.
Perhaps it's because he comes from a family of businesspeople that Bruna takes such a markedly unworldly approach to the company he created. 'Sometimes people ask me, how much do you earn? No idea at all. Of course it's funny to say something like that, but I'm just very happy as we are.' He was born into a great Dutch publishing house - the Bruna name is as familiar in Holland as W.H. Smith is in Britain. 'My father and my grandfather were real businesspeople,' he explains, with a touch of hostility. 'They were not very much interested in art.'
The young Bruna, however, was constantly drawing. During the Second World War the family moved to a house in the Dutch countryside, and his passion for art deepened: 'I didn't go to school, I was just at home. And we had a book about Rembrandt and one about Van Gogh, and I read those two books I think five or six times.' After some time in London and Paris ('I really went from one gallery to another, all day. I was so much impressed by the work of Picasso and Léger, Matisse, Braque and all those people') he returned to Holland and began his career as a designer of book covers for the family company.
As with Miffy, his covers - for books in the Black Bear imprint by Ian Fleming, Leslie Charteris and others - were marvels of cool, clean graphic design. Bruna was delighted by a letter he got from one of the authors he collaborated with, Georges Simenon: 'I see that you are trying to make your covers still simpler and simpler,' he wrote. 'You are doing the same in designing as I try to do in writing.' Bruna is always in pursuit of simpler, more perfect forms. When he draws Miffy crying, he tells me, 'I very often start with three or four tears. I take away one, and the next day I take away another one, and at the end I have one tear, and that's very, very sad.' His work fits him comfortably into the canon of Dutch modernist graphic design, but if you ask him about his place within it, he bats away the question: 'I never went to art school, you know. I don't know if I'm an artist or this or that...' He eventually stopped doing covers when he was asked to design one for a science fiction book: 'I couldn't read it, I found it very difficult, very hard. I thought, "No, that's more for younger people now".'
It's hard not to be struck by Bruna's modesty and sweet nature. Even the details of his daily routine have a picturesque simplicity, and in his artless, unadorned English they take on an almost Zen-like purity. He rises every day at 5 or 5.30, squeezes a glass of orange juice for his wife, Irene, and draws her a picture. The pictures - all of which she has kept - are about things she has done, or reminders of things she is planning to do. He says that, on the morning of my visit, 'I did a little drawing about bridge, because she's going to bridge tonight'.
He then hops on his bicycle and goes to a cafe - always the same one - for a coffee, which is ready for him when he arrives. In the morning he works on drawing in his studio; he cycles home for lunch. In the afternoon, he returns to the studio and does whatever administrative work there is to do. Utrecht, a small city of canals and cobbled streets, suits him perfectly. 'The people are very nice here, they leave me to work and just say "Hello!" and that's it. And the children just say, "Hello, Dick! Are you going to make new books?" "Yes, I am trying to do that!".'
This is not to say that everything is straightforward for Bruna. Although he's been drawing Miffy for more than 50 years, every time he sits down to draw her he feels a jolt of nerves. In Bruna's immaculate studio - books neatly piled, paper tidied away, surfaces clean and dust-free - there are several little tubs packed with perfectly sharpened pencils. When I pick one up to inspect it, the end is all chewed up. I pick up another, and it too is nibbled away. The pencils are the proof of Bruna's doubt, anxiousness. 'It's funny,' he says. 'When I was younger I thought that when I got older I would be sure what was OK, and what was not OK. But it's just the other way round. You're getting more and more uncertain.'
Some years ago he met Charles M. Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip. Schulz complained that as he'd got older, his hand had started to shake so that he couldn't draw smooth lines any more. But for Bruna, the sprightliest 80-year-old imaginable, the only trouble he has is with 'the trembling of my heart', the apprehensiveness of the perfectionist. It might take him a day to draw a single illustration of Miffy, anything up to 100 sketches before he is content.
Thoughts of work are ever-present, pigs, bears and rabbits all jostling for attention. His mind is constantly ticking over: 'I'm nearly always thinking about new stories on my bicycle. You can't stop it. Sometimes I think I'd like to, because I want to sleep or something!'
He was inspired to create Poppy Pig after meeting one of his three children's schoolteachers. 'First of all,' he says, 'she didn't like it. But now she's very happy with it.' On holiday in the South of France - where the Brunas have a home - he drives off to the shops but invariably ends up pulling over to write down an idea that's just popped into his head. On Sundays his wife ends up ordering him off to his studio because he gets so fidgety when he isn't working.
Bruna married Irene in 1953, when he was 25 and she was 19, and she has always been his first editor and critic. When he's finished a new book he places it on a long, sturdy wooden table in his studio and invites her round to see it. 'Then I make coffee or tea and I'm very nervous, really. I'm very nervous. And I look at her and I can see in her face if it is Yes or No.' Theirs seems an enviable marriage, although as we talk he turns a little regretful: 'I feel that sometimes it's a pity for Irene, because work has always been in the very first place for me. Really. Of course we went out to parties but I've never really been...' His sentence trails off sadly.
The only other time in our conversation when Bruna's brow clouds over is when we discuss Hello Kitty, the Japanese cartoon beloved of cute-obsessed schoolgirls and lovers of kitsch throughout the world. 'That,' he says darkly, 'is a copy [of Miffy], I think. I don't like that at all. I always think, "No, don't do that. Try to make something that you think of yourself".' After all, he adds - mood already lifting - 'there's so many nice things.'
It's not exactly surprising that Japan should have spawned a rival to Miffy, because it's home to her most ardent fans - and, crucially, her most lavish consumers. In Bruna's studio there are gifts from children all around the world, but most numerous are the cards artfully crafted from patterned paper, and flocks of origami birds which are sent for good luck. When Bruna goes for his morning coffee, he says, 'there are often Japanese people waiting there - they know'. And when he toured Britain on Miffy's 50th anniversary, he was followed from venue to venue by a middle-aged Japanese woman who sported a Miffy painted on each cheek. He finds the interest exciting, but bewildering.
It's odd, in a way, that the creator of such an internationally beloved character should be such a local, well-insulated person, tied so intimately to the city in which he was born and grew up: 'I think the size of Utrecht is very nice, and I like to cycle along the canals and see the boats and the reflections.' It's hard to draw him on politics, because he insists he knows nothing about it. Indeed, Bruna says he feels 'really like a child. I sometimes think there are quite a lot of things that I don't understand, anyway.' The more complex parts of life don't really make their way into the books, either, although he has written about the death of Miffy's grandmother, and the importance of including those who are different (like Flopear, the bunny with one floppy ear). His books aren't supposed to be didactic: 'I'm not doing teaching at all. I couldn't do that.'
We talk about religion: is that something that makes more sense to him than politics? 'I still have the feeling that there is something, that life is not nothing at all. Sometimes, when I did a drawing that I think, "Yes, that became a nice drawing", sometimes when I go home I say, "Thanks very much".'
As he says this he points to the sky. 'And sometimes, I think, "Oh, no, that was not very kind!".' And, smiling sweetly, he raises his fist and shakes it at the heavens.