Playing with freedom: How Happy Squares was born
I enjoy looking back at family photos - the pleasure of remembering, and telling stories of the past. It makes the present feel deeper.
It has been three years now since the first prototype of my children’s toy, Happy Squares, was made. Here, I want to share the story of how this close-to-my-heart project came into being.
Architecture is most exciting to me when it is used and played with. How play and freedom are linked to architecture has been the subject of much research* which I have been interested in since my own studies in architecture and philosophy began in 1999.
I’ve wanted to create an architectural toy for children for a long time. My desire was to design an open-ended object that would allow children to explore space freely, and that would support and nourish imagination and invention. It should be as simple as possible, self-explanatory, body-sized, and most importantly, exciting!
After having my first child in 2012, this desire flourished even more. I started to design playful activities and workshops around architecture, but the toy itself still eluded me.
Illumination came in 2014 while visiting the Young V&A (then named the Museum of Childhood). I had just moved to London and was exploring children-friendly places, and discovering English toys such as Octons and Playplax. I instantly knew I wanted to offer a system like this: something simple which nevertheless allowed for endless possibilities for play. The difference would be the size – my toy would allow children to not only play on tables and with their hands, but at real scale, using their whole body. It would use the same principle of connection, but with big modules, allowing children to go within the construction they themselves had created.
Once I had the idea, I began the difficult journey of how to actually produce this toy. I wanted its production to align with my ideas about society: it would have to be affordable, locally produced in a skilled and simple manner, made of ecological materials, and not bound to gender.
This led me first to wood: plywood is easy to cut, sustainable, very solid, soft to the touch and smells delicious. This would be perfect for the big elements. The connecting elements had to be made of a different material, which should not wear out like wood, so the connections would stay tight after being used for a long time. I explored the idea of recycled plastic. Unfortunately, this affordable material can be toxic for children and, as a manufacturer explained, only exists in rather boring “bin colours”: black, brown, dark green or dark blue. Bio-plastic, which includes organic waste, appeared to be a better option.
In 2021, I began many testing sessions, starting with my children, their friends, our local school and nursery groups. Numerous architect-guinea pigs built houses, rockets, three-dimensional labyrinths, shops, castles, theatres, dens, and unidentified mini-buildings. Everyone was excited, and it seemed that Happy Squares could provide an opportunity for collaboration as well as play.
I continued on my path. But the world had other plans.
First, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Then, a global shortage of plywood began, due to a natural disaster – bugs had eaten all the Canadian trees which were the main source of raw material exported to the UK. The cost of the toy surged – the opposite of what I wanted.
I had to come up with a plan B. I decided to use a more basic and common material: recycled cardboard. This is cost-efficient, with the bonus of giving a second life to discarded paper and packaging. It seemed like a good alternative.
To ensure the toy was strong enough, I had to use very dense cardboard, impossible to cut with a knife! I got in touch with specialists, who use presses and cutters – a bit like a cookie cutter, but with much more power.
This is how Happy Squares came to be produced. Some are simply made of this raw, grey cardboard, while others can be customised or have a layer of recycled plain colour or printed paper. The possibilities are infinite.
Along with the prototyping and testing of the toy itself, I also received business support and advice. It felt daunting, but I was encouraged to take it seriously and give my project the best start I could. I created a limited company, registered with VAT and made Happy Squares compliant with products sold in the UK. I also employed a young person to help me sell the toy to retailers. Some of this brought a bit of unwanted heaviness to my lighthearted project and also drove the price of the toy to be higher than what I had wished for – but at least, at last, Happy Squares was born.
Since then, my toys have been used by many families and institutions in the UK and in Europe, and this makes me proud and happy.
Recently, I decided to make some changes to bring Happy Squares closer to my beliefs and feelings. Scaling down the company, I unregistered from the VAT and decided to sell my toy through my own website. This would bring the whole process closer to me, and also reduce the price to be as low as possible. This now feels right and good :)
I am currently developing the next stage of Happy Squares through creative collaborations and hope in future to adapt it to specific contexts, such as iconic buildings. There are more exciting times to come!
It feels wonderful to have a new family album to look at now, and remember the birth, quirks and flourishing moments of my architecture toy!*more about this in another post very soon!