Inflatable Czech design

Continuing the tradition

Tereza Kozlová
22 December 2014

Since the 1960s and 1970s, toys manufactured by Fatra Napajedla factory have been among the icons of Czech design. Today, Jan Čapek, who won Designer of the Year Award at the prestigious Czech Grand Design competition, is continuing the tradition.


Fatra Napajedla is among Europe’s best-known producers of plastics. Even though the company’s cash cow is its products for IKEA, roofing hydro-isolation, PVC flooring, and special steam-permeable foils, Fatra also manufactures toys. Since the 1960s and 1970s, they have been among icons of Czech design. In 2014, the company received major prizes for its new toys, and designer Jan Čapek has found his own way to continue the tradition of the old toys, coming up with a wonderful new collection.

Fatra was founded in 1935 by the famous Czech Bata company. At that time it was hit by the economic crisis and the shoe industry faced stagnation. Then company director Jan Antonín Bata, decided to diversify production. Following an impulse from the Ministry of Defense, the Fatra plant opened in Napajedla. The first products manufactured there were gas masks and protective gear, technical rubber, as well as rubber toys. The progressive Bata Group had its own construction department and a signature architectural style that also marked the Fatra plant at Napajedla. The best architects worked for Bata, along with others such as filmmakers and photographers.

The publicity department of Bata Film Studios in Zlín produced advertisements for the company’s products. Like everything else at Bata, advertising was also done to the very best standard. A good example here is the advertising film for tires, entitled Silnice zpívá (The Road Sings), of 1937, made by Alexander Hammid, which received the Gold Medal at the World Fair in Paris.


An artist and a visionary

In the 1950s and 1960s, Libuše Niklová (1934-1981) designed small, rubber squeaking dolls and animals for the Gumotex company. In 1963, she joined Fatra Napajedla, where she made a series of progressive toys led by the seated ones that are currently being manufactured anew. Niklová first tested simple, tiny armchairs, which she then transformed into shapes of squeaking animals with moving eyes. “… passive seating does not fit the nature of a child … the point of my toys is that the body of a toy consists of a sequence of at least four, connected, flat molded parts, two of which set the shape and at least two internal ones, fitted with round openings that complete the piece and provide space for seating,” Niklová described her patented discovery.


Industrial perfection

Timeless design with a touch of retro was universally praised and made Libuše Niklová a staple in history of Czech design. The production continued in the coming decades, but at the beginning of the 1990s, when the Czech toy market was flooded with more economical competition from China, Fatra gave up the fight and almost closed the production line. Plastic toys from Moravia were rediscovered in thanks to curator Tereza Bruthansová. In 2005 the toys by Libuše Niklová were included on the list of Czech 100 Design Icons. Experts and leaders of Czech art scene chose 100 items that best characterized the development of Czech design over the past one hundred years. Designer Jan Froněk chose the inflatable Buffalo, thus assuring the toy its glorious resurrection. Tereza Bruthansová joined up with Libuše’s son, artist Petr Nikl, and helped him prepare an exhibition in the memory of his mother’s achievements.

The 200 dm3 of Breath exhibition was held in 2010 in the Regional Museum of Art in Zlín. A reissue of a few pieces of the Buffalo, the toy designed by Libuše Niklová in 1971, was made for the occasion. It was very well received. Soon the Buffalo was joined by the Elephant and the Giraffe. These toys represent the highlight of Libuše Niklová’s work, and were praised by designer Jan Čapek: “Niklová’s toys represent perfect industrial design. They bring together artistic originality, an ability to abbreviate, whilst retaining the strong character of individual animals. At the same time, the animals are very well optimized in terms of the number of manufacturing tasks. The collection of animals within the current re-edition is the peak of Niklová’s work. It bears the fruit of the many years spent in the plant, and of hundreds of earlier designs and prototypes of toys.”

The Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris launched an exhibition of original toys designed by Libuše Niklová in 2011, eleven years after Fatra ended the toy production line. In 2012, Czech toys made in the 1970s in Moravia were shown at the exhibition Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and drew major interest from audiences, critics and customers alike. The trio – Elephant, Buffalo, and Giraffe – soon appeared in leading design shops all over the world.

The re-edition of the old toys was selling well and the company wanted to come up with something new. Bruthansová wanted to see the high quality of toys designed by Fatra retained, so she chose the best designers experienced with toys and brought them to Fatra. Three teams ended up working there: the designers Jan Čapek, Anna and Jerry Koza, and graphic artist Zuzana Lednická, who is also the graphic designer of the Libuše Niklová monograph.


A return to manual labor

The most successful new toys are a dog called Bulík and a formula racing car, which earned Jan Čapek Designer of the Year Award at the prestigious Czech Grand Design competition. “The work for Fatra gave me a unique opportunity to become acquainted with entirely new technologies and at the same time to follow on the company’s legendary tradition. I am honored by the success of the toys and the Designer of the Year Award, as every year sees an increase in the number of high quality projects and companies that work with designers in the Czech Republic. Each of the entries in the wider nominations for the Czech Grand Design was wonderful. The development of the toys was perhaps the most difficult I had ever done. To take PVC foil and come up with a pattern that, once inflated, looks as you want it to, is quite tricky. I quickly suppressed the bad memories of the first toys and enjoyed their ultimate success. I recently started travelling to Fatra again because of the new toys. Again, I faced disappointment and tough confrontation with the processing requirements and the length of the entire process,” says Čapek.

Čapek designed the dog in 2013. The construction of its body follows Niklová’s seating toys; the difference is that the front is more developed to better contrast with the dog’s narrower rear part, which enabled the creation of the correct posture of the dog. In 2014, Čapek came up with a dinosaur. “In the dinosaur I further developed the principle that I first used with the dog: the individual part that is pulled over the body. Once inflated, the individual parts firmly join together,” explains the designer. For the dog it was a collar and for the dinosaur it is its legs.

“Designing inflatable toys meant starting from zero for me! It can be compared to clothing design. Here, too, the surface sheer pattern of the foil is the basis for further work. Then the foil is not sewn but welded together. Compared to clothing, in this case, however, individual welds have to be all on one surface. Welds are always on the same plane. As opposed to tailoring, our work is more shape-sensitive in that the inflation shows everything. The very process of prototype manufacturing is also quite a challenge. The welding proceeds piece-by-piece with the help of differently bent metal sheets that works as electrodes. When you come up with a particular shape, it takes quite an effort before you see that you ‘went astray’ altogether. This process cannot be skipped and in principle it eliminates the use of a computer. For me, designing inflatable toys meant an honest return to manual labor. I can proudly say that literally each inch of the shape of a toy passed through my hands repeatedly.”

The study of the old toys was also vital. Čapek further developed the principle of welding, for instance the neck of Niklová’s Giraffe, which is how he created a formula car, his second toy, to which he added the hitherto unused foil perforation around the wheel discs.

As a passionate collector of retro items, his collection also contains a range of unique toys from the 1960s and 1970s that he loaned to Tereza Bruthansová for her book. “Because of the era and the limited opportunities to become established, toys for children were made by outstanding artists who, as freelancers, would normally focus on something else. When one looks for instance at a Czechoslovak animated film, it is clear that creative ambitions went well beyond children’s film: from puppets through music, all the way to the graphics of the credits. The same can also be said of decorative glass: often the regime’s undesirable artists would find refuge there. Similarly, Niklová was almost too good for toys,” believes Čapek.

Since 2000, Fatra has been part of the Agrofert Group. With its 27,000 employees, Agrofert is a major employer in the Czech Republic. Toys represent a negligible portion of their operation, as the development cost of new toys, including their presentation, has proved quite high. The beginning of the cooperation with designers was thus shadowed by doubt as to the project’s completion. The established autumn design show Designblok introduced prototypes in 2013, and final versions of toys went into production before Christmas. Fatra is not taking part in the design show in 2014. Designers are working on new toys and promise to have them on sale again by Christmas. Fingers crossed that the toys – like the Bata products – conquer the world!

Translated by Lucia Faltinova


Tereza Kozlová is a Czech journalist and design critic.