Q+A with Lisa Mahar, owner of the New York toy store Kid O. The store will debut its new house line of toys in July, with graphics and packaging by 2×4.
After four thriving years of selling other companies’ products, this summer you’re bringing out your own line. Why did you start with blocks and puzzles?
Both are invaluable tools for helping kids process their impressions of the world, hone their organizational skills, learn about math, geometry, counting, and get ready for reading. My desire to produce blocks in particular grew out of my being an architect, as well as having a 5-year-old son in pre-K at City & Country School in the Village. Unit blocks are a foundation of the school’s program for kids through age 7. The woman who founded the school in 1914, Caroline Pratt, developed unit blocks, the natural wood finish ones you see everywhere in kindergarten classrooms. She didn’t trademark the design; she was a very generous person who thought it was important for her ideas to get out in the world. Properly made unit blocks are very difficult to find now. The one good manufacturer left is a company called Community Playthings, in upstate New York. But they concentrate on the classroom market, and the blocks are not very available for home use.
So you’re producing a licensed version of the Pratt blocks with City & Country?
That’s right. I approached the school about licensing, and it’s a win-win situation: a portion of the sales proceeds will go to the school. And we’ve added some color blocks to the selection, which Community Playthings doesn’t have; we have colored geometric pieces that can represent anything the kids want during symbolic play—red for tomatoes at a store, yellow for candle flames, anything.
How did you come up with the designs for the puzzles?
There are 14 different ones. Half are geometric or animal shapes, mostly with little knobs on the tops; those help kids ages 1 to 3 recognize and compare the differences, the great or subtle differences, between light and dark, short and tall, thin and thick shapes. And the other half, for kids up to age 6, have very accurate renderings of nature, which you almost never see on puzzles on the market. I worked with a young RISD-trained illustrator who’s becoming very well known, Julia Rothman. The puzzles very accurately, naturalistically show animals in complete ecosystems. The illustrations have incredible quality and workmanship, they convey my respect for children’s ability to understand the subtleties of the world.
Where are the toys manufactured?
All in China. The blocks are made of beech from sustainably harvested forests in Germany, and the puzzles are maple plywood. Since they’re made in China, I can retail the block sets for $56, and the puzzles go for $15 to $27. I want parents to be able to afford beautifully designed things that they feel good about giving to their children. Eventually I want to turn the store into a company store, and only sell products that I manufacture. I’m hoping to bring out 25 products a year, each group covering a complete category. For next season I’ll focus on black and white geometric toys for infants, bath toys, kitchen toys, and wooden manipulatives.