Margaret Howell celebrates the joy of modernist toys

The London brand's Marylebone boutique explores the midcentury educational designs of Abbatt Toys

The wooden toy contains elephants in different colors stacked on each other, with one yellow elephant to the side.
(Image credit: TBC)

In 1933, children’s toy pioneer Paul Abbatt wrote in the journal Design for Today that play was ‘a force which can be used for development and valuable experience, a force which, if it is not thwarted by the wrong choice of playthings, develops into the power behind the successful architect or engineer.’ Abbatt and his wife Marjorie who trained as a teacher and a child therapist, are famed for inventing a range of interactive, educational children’s toys, inspired by trips to study progressive nursery teaching approaches in Vienna, former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. These designs are instrumental to how play is viewed as instrumental to development, also informing the architecture of play spaces and the education of those living with learning disabilities.

‘As a grandparent able to observe young children at play it soon becomes clear they are most absorbed and happy when they feel in charge of creating and constructing,’ says Margaret Howell. In celebration of Abbatt Toys – which first launched from its husband-and-wife founders’ Bloomsbury flat in 1932, the designer has launched an exhibition celebrating its groundbreaking designs at its Marylebone flagship. The show forms one of a series dedicated to strong design. In 2019, Howell celebrated the pages of the Council of Industrial Design's Design Folios, which were produced in the mid-20th century.


The wooden play tray jigsaws and farmyard barns are formed from slats of wood.

(Image credit: TBC)

Abbatt Toys’ designs encouraged problem solving and creative thinking, and included silkscreened play tray jigsaws, stacked elephants and farmyard barns which were formed from slats of wood. These creations were also inspired by trips its founders took to Leipzig Toy Fair, toy factories is Dresden, Nurenberg and Berlin, and the Maison des Petites in Geneva. The designs were adapted to different ages and stages of development, with relatively little attention to gender difference. They were also masterminded by the Abbat’s architect friend Ernö Goldfinger, who also designed their child-friendly showroom on Wimpole Street in London, in 1936.

‘They designed toys to stimulate the imagination as well as physical skills. Self-learning hand in hand with fun!’ Howell says of the Abbatt’s output. We suggest you pop in for a spot of play time.

Toy magazines are displayed with a wooden train toy next to them.

(Image credit: TBC)

A wooden puzzle toy consists of a box with geometrical parts that fit into the openings on the box.

(Image credit: TBC)

Wooden puzzle toys are displayed next to each other.

(Image credit: TBC)