Friday, 16 December 2011

Dress Your Doll

Here's another unique creative toy I first saw at this year's Autumn Fair. This one's aimed at the budding little fashion designer in your life.

Barbie (and her other 12" rivals) may not be every woman's idea of a feminist icon. But what if you could use her to develop your child's creative skills, along with encouraging recycling and the lost art of Make Do And Mend? That's the thinking behind Roos Productions, 3 Belgian women who have combined their love of designing textile graphics, creating fashion patterns and exhibiting historical girls' toys.

The result is Dress Your Doll, an innovative set of craft kits suitable for anyone 7 years old and upwards (supervision recommended for young children). Each kit has everything you need to create an outfit for the most popular size of fashion doll, along with accessories from a bag to a bedspread. Everything is printed on non-fraying fabric which just needs to be cut out and sewn together along the dotted lines. Any child who can cut neatly and sew a straight line will soon be creating a wardrobe of mix and match outfits she can be proud of and have hours of fun playing with.

The doll used here is also available as part of the Dress Your Doll range, supplied separately.

The print details are in perfect tiny proportion. The doll on the right is sporting a photo-quality robin on her top and bag.

Patterns are also available that can be used on your own choice of fabric, which is a great way to make use of those old scraps that would otherwise have gone in the bin. They also sell greetings cards that can be cut up and sewn into a doll's T-shirt! They're even willing to design bespoke kits for you, which would be perfect to get your logo out there for advertising campaigns or charity fundraising.

Collecting a few official Barbie outfits can soon start to cost a fortune so making your own not only makes economic sense but also helps teach children valuable life skills and trains their hand-eye co-ordination.

Unfortunately in researching this blog I'm struggling to find any retailers for Dress Your Doll. There are certainly none listed in the UK. I'm sure if you contacted the team at Roos Productions directly and show them some love, they'd be happy to help supply you with their ingenious little product.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Brickwork: Lego v Nanoblocks

Ahh, Lego. The one toy it's perfectly acceptable never to grow out of. Especially if you end up with the skills to create masterpieces like these:

There are people out there paid good money to be professional Lego sculptors. Guys such as Nathan Sawaya and Sean Kenney. I want their lives.

However you might not know that Lego has a pretender to its crown. A very small, very tough and very awe-inspiring little rival. Nanoblocks were invented in 2008 in Japan (those masters of miniaturisation) and are distributed in Britain by Nanoblocks UK. That company's founder Ashley Yeates recently promoted the product by making this tribute to the X Factor!

I first saw Nanoblocks at this year's Autumn Fair and my jaw nearly hit the ground. Photos really can't do justice to how intricate these bricks are, but this pig will give you a clue.

The smallest single peg bricks are an incredible 4 mm square so you might need a magnifying glass to work on some of the fiddlier details! Other differences to Lego are that all the blocks are one height, 5 mm, and they have a different interlocking mechanism which makes it easier to place them diagonally, as you can see with the pig's ears.

At the moment you can buy them as kits to build specific models, ranging from an 80-piece cockatiel to a nerve-wracking 6000-piece castle (complete with LED lights). Here's a 550-piece International Space Station from the Sights To See range:

The miniature kits such as the pig come with a 4 cm x 4 cm base plate and Sights To See are 8 cm x 8 cm. With prices starting at less than £8.00, they're a very affordable stocking filler for anyone over 12 that would pass away the duller hours after Christmas. So you could easily collect all the kits, solve the puzzle of how to put them together (instructions are included but the website encourages you to also come up with your own ideas) and still have lots of room left on your shelves!

Hopefully in the future Nanoblocks will release basic starter kits so you can create whatever you want. If they could get artists as talented as Nathan Sawaya and Sean Kenney behind them, the mind boggles at what they could achieve!

•UK retailers for Nanoblocks include Firebox, Dinkybox, FireStar and Clockwork Mouse.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Red Hot + Blue

For World Aids Day 2011 I'm commemorating the 21st anniversary of one of my favourite albums which has now largely been forgotten here in the UK although its legacy is still alive and well in America.

The Red Hot Organisation formed in New York in 1989 to fight AIDS through popular culture, following the devastating effects the virus had on the city's artistic community.

The big idea was to get the top names in pop music around the world to record songs by Cole Porter for a fundraising album, taking on the name Red Hot + Blue after one of Porter's musicals. Cole Porter was chosen not only for the beauty and popularity of his music but also because his life and the impact of his message still resonated with the society of the late 20th century.

He was a gay man in an age when such things were illegal (spending much of his life in a happy platonic marriage) and he also spent much of his life in pain following a serious horse riding accident. His lyrics didn't shy away from strong social comment (Anything Goes, Love For Sale), the agony and ecstasy of love (Every Time We Say Goodbye, I've Got You Under My Skin) or downright cheekiness (Let's Do It, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) His music combined sophistication, wit and debauchery but did it in a way that appealed to the general public.

Cole Porter and his contemporaries epitomised the spirit of the Roaring Twenties, banishing the Victorian prudishness of their parents' generation and living life to the full after the horrors of World War 1. Likewise the New York art scene of the late 1980s fought to prevent a Victorian-style backlash against the AIDS outbreak which risked the gay community, in particular, losing the steps towards acceptance and equality for which they had fought so hard. The way to stem the tide of AIDS was not to pretend it wasn't happening but to face it head on and talk about some uncomfortable truths.

So in that spirit of defiance, King Cole Inc (later renamed the Red Hot Organisation) was born. 22 world-class acts answered the call to record the album and teamed up with some top film makers to record video clips compiled into a 90 minute TV special aired in America on World Aids Day 1990.

Albums are still being released under the Red Hot banner although their activities are now more confined to the USA. Their 15 albums to date, along with related TV and media work, have raised over $10 million for HIV/AIDS awareness and relief projects around the world. Red Hot + Blue was rereleased as a CD and Region 1 DVD 2-disc set in 2006 (and so unsuitable for most machines outside of North America).

Most of the performances from the TV special are available on YouTube. I've picked out some samples that show the wide range of interpretations these timeless classics inspired and the daring, thought provoking visuals that accompany them.

• For more about the work of the Red Hot Organisation, visit