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Dick Bruna: Graphic Designer & Father of Miffy

Dick Bruna is known the world over for his children’s books, which he both authored and illustrated. From the 2000 or more books he worked on throughout his career, Miffy has become his iconic character. Miffy, or Nijntje in Dutch, is instantly recognisable as a small Dutch rabbit drawn with simple shapes, heavy graphic lines and bold primary colours. Behind her fame lies much more from the iconic master of design and father of Miffy.

Dick Bruna was born in Utrecht in 1927. His father was the owner of the great Dutch publishing house A.W Bruna & Son, and so Dick Bruna’s childhood was spent surrounded by authors and artists in his home and this first sparked his interest in design. After World War II, Dick was taken out of school and was instead sent away on internships, organised through his father’s connections in Utrecht, London and Paris. It was during this time that he lived in Paris and went every day to as many exhibitions as he could, going to from one to another. Soaking up the innovative atmosphere of the city he became inspired by the work of Picasso and Matisse amongst others. Following this period, he was allowed by his family to attend an art course at the State Academy in Amsterdam.

In 1951 Bruna fell head over heels in love with Irene de Jongh, a local girl, and proposed to her. Having to accept her Father’s demand to find a steady job, he accepted a permanent position at the family publishing firm, quickly becoming their in-house designer. At the beginning of his career he designed book covers: striking designs for which he took influence from Matisse. Colourful compositions, collage and primary colours on a black background gave his cover designs their unique look. His books stood out on all the stands in every railway station kiosk and shop. They showcased his sleek illustration and gentle humour. He cut shapes from coloured paper, preferring that to drawing with pencil. Most popular were his illustrated covers for the Zwarte Beertjes series of books and he also found fame with his The Saint and Simeon Maigret book covers, typified by a graphic silhouette of a pipe on all the covers.

It was only in 1955, during a wet and windy summer holiday in North Holland that Dick entertained his son Sierk making up a stories by drawing a little white rabbit having a different adventure every evening. Miffy was born: a small female rabbit with naive features, dots for eyes and clumsy ears. Miffy has changed through the years and it was in 1963 through the pursuit of pure time forms that the Miffy we know today was created. Dick was a perfectionist, sometimes taking a day to draw and paint a single illustration of Miffy. The adventures of Miffy are based on things Bruna had heard, or family life, not fantasy. Meanwhile, she became an international celebrity: books about Miffy were translated into 40 languages and over 85 million books sold, and in her honour a museum was opened for her 50th birthday. Dick Bruna was an unassuming quiet man: hard-working and always shied from the limelight. Dick published 120 children’s books and Miffy made this design icon a millionaire before his sad death in 2017.

Published in Actual Size magazine. Designed, written and art directed by myself at Scratchy Hen Design.

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