November 10th, 2011
03:43 PM ET
With the holiday season fast approaching, many parents are flocking to retro toys in the hopes that they can bond with their children over a shared experience. Mention toys like Etch-A-Sketch, Slinky, Uno and Lite Brite and their eyes light (brite) up.
Colorforms, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this month, is one of those nostalgic toys that still resonates, even though kids don't need some sort of screen - be it a TV, computer, iPad, iPhone or something similar - to stay engaged and entertained.
The first Colorforms set was created in 1951 and consisted of vinyl, geometric shapes in primary colors that could be fashioned into stories and patterns when affixed (via the magic of static cling) to a shiny, black laminated board. Square + triangle = house. Boom! Instant story.
Colorforms soon began featuring licensed characters. The static cling concept remained, but the shiny boards featured illustrated scenes that characters like Popeye and Barbie could stick to.
CNN spoke to Pat Kislevitz, 82, who helped her late husband, Harry, develop the now iconic toy in 1951.
Harry had just gotten out of the Navy, Pat explained, where he served as a medic. Torn between art school and medical school, he picked the Art Students League and soon stumbled across "a material they were making pocketbooks out of that had one terrible property - all the pocketbooks were sticking together! They offered to send him large rolls of the material."
Pat, who'd attended the University of North Carolina as an art major, suggested getting rolls of the flexible vinyl material in primary colors. The couple lived in a tiny railroad-style apartment on Manhattan's West 28th Street and had painted their bathroom a shiny, bright orange enamel. They also kept sheets of the vinyl material in the lavatory.
"We'd have guests who'd go in and they'd never come out," explained Pat. They'd bring scissors into the bathroom and cut out "all these Matisse forms. Very amoebic. And the walls would be covered and we'd have to yodel, 'Hello? Everything okay in there?' "
The Kislevitzes figured they had a toy on their hands.
"We found that it would stick to any shiny surface," explained Pat. "Glass, the refrigerator... so we got to work. I sat at the kitchen table and made the original geometric forms and we designed our booklet. Harry was very interested in [abstract artist] Kandinsky at that time and we'd go down to the Museum of Modern Art in the Village - that's where it was originally - and look around."
"It took us one whole day for each color," said Pat, referring to the process of manually cutting the primary colored vinyl sheets into geometric shapes. Harry's father ran a die-cutting business and was able to construct dies to help punch out the shapes.
The Kislevitzes shopped Colorforms around. FAO Schwartz ordered 1,000 units. Orders increased, and more stores wanted to stock Colorforms on their shelves. Colorforms was also the first child's toy to be available in black boxes because, according to Pat, "precious things come in black boxes."
The company soon branched out into featuring licensed characters. It began with Popeye, but in no time, one only needed to glance at the Colorforms section in stores to learn what characters were popular with children. Through the years, Colorforms sets were rolled out in characters like Mickey Mouse; the Peanuts gang; Barbie; "Sesame Street"; '70s TV series like "Little House on the Prairie" and "Welcome Back, Kotter"; '80s cartoons such as Smurfs and Popples; and many, many, many more.
The art-oriented couple, passionate about children having access to good art, called artists in to work for Colorforms and help develop sets. Pat and Harry also sought the advice of early childhood development experts.
"When a child is 18 months old," said Pat, "it literally can create with its thumb and its forefinger. It can pick up things, and Colorforms can be picked up rather easily and a very young child could make what it wanted to make."
By 1990, over a billion Colorforms sets had been sold.
Today, licensed Colorforms characters include "Dora the Explorer," "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," "Transformers" and "Fancy Nancy," among others. University Games, which now owns Colorforms, has released a replica version of the original Colorforms set in celebration of the 60th anniversary on November 13. The company is also re-releasing Colorforms' Michael Jackson Dress-Up Set.
In December, University Games will release iPad and iPhone versions of Colorforms. The company's president Bob Moog told CNN that for the first time, Colorforms products are going beyond static cling and vinyl. While the traditional boxed sets are still Colorforms' mainstay, a new product called Magic Fashion Show is larger in scale than traditional Colorforms sets. (The basic premise is creating and putting on a fashion show.) Colorforms' new Brush with Genius features an electronic paint brush.
The very first Colorforms set - the one Pat and Harry designed at the kitchen table of that crammed-but-cozy railroad-style apartment - now sits in the Museum of Modern Art.
"I think, immodestly," said Pat, "that the original set was more artful and more our direction than later Colorforms products."
How do Moog and his colleagues make sure Colorforms retain the classic qualities that parents remember from childhood, while keeping them relevant to today's generation?
"When Colorforms first came out," explained Moog, "the tagline was 'Sticks Like Magic.' For kids in the '50s and '60s, it really was kind of high-tech and magical because there were no strings, there was no glue - it was a reusable sticking system."
But now, Moog continued, "with electronics and all the things that are going on, static cling is considered pretty old-fashioned to people. So what we've done to try to make it seem topical, and something that is on trend, we've re-positioned Colorforms and we now consider it a story crafting and storytelling product line. And what it offers children is the opportunity - without any parental involvement - to do open-ended, creative, imaginative play with and without electronics."
What about you? Did you grow up with Colorforms? If so, what were your favorite sets?
I'll start: I have extremely fond memories of playing with my long-gone Smurfs Colorforms set. So much so that my heart skipped when I looked it up on Google Images.
Smurfy, water-colored memories...
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