Meet Noook, winner of Bubble London's Rising Star Award s/s 17.
By Laura Turner
11 August 2016
Main image L-R: Bubble event director Lindsay Hoyes; Noook founder Torsten Sherwood; Bubble event manager Katharine Revill.
Each season, kids’ trade event Bubble London hosts the Rising Star Award, a competition to determine the show’s best launch brand. The s/s 17 finalists made for an impressive line-up, but it was UK toy brand Noook who won over judges Allison Goodfellow-Ash of WGSN, Scandi Mini’s Gabrielle Spång, Victoria Hampson of Natural Baby Shower and CWB editor Laura Turner. Following the show, Turner catches back up with Noook’s founder, Torsten Sherwood, for more insight into his brand.
Laura Turner: How would you describe Noook?
Torsten Sherwood: Noook is a large-scale construction toy; a kind of ‘archi-toy’ for building things large enough to play inside, such as dens, forts and playhouses. It’s about the open-end, creative-making play experience of a traditional construction toy, but at a scale large enough for children to inhabit.
LT: What’s the story behind the brand’s creation?
TS: Noook originated from the idea that there is something very special about making things with your hands. It engages the mind and body in a unique way that allows you to think and learn differently.
The big inspiration and our benchmark was actually the humble cardboard box. This unintended toy can teach us a lot about designing for children and for play. Although it’s a little cliched, we can all relate to how a big cardboard box is often far more fun than the over-designed and expensive object inside. There are two simple reasons for this. Firstly, the box is like a giant 3D canvas that children can shape into their own space and there is something special about that play experience. Secondly, and most surprisingly, the cardboard box is not valuable; children can play freely with it without worry. With Noook, we wanted to capture this ethos, yet make it more practical and user-friendly.
LT: What’s your design background?
TS: While reading architecture at university I became particularly interested in craft and making within design. As a designer, I spend a lot of our time creating sketches, models, mock-ups and prototypes. We do this because when you work physically, you think differently. I even started designing and making furniture because, unlike architecture, you can really get hands-on involvement at that scale.
Due to my interests I was invited to be the Designer and Resident at the Design Museum
and asked to produce an exhibition about my ‘making-based approach’ to design. While I’m fascinated with craft and making, I appreciate it’s a pretty dry, even ‘geeky’ topic to most, particularly kids, who happen to be the museum’s biggest audience. So, I had the idea to hide this topic in play and introduce it as a game though a construction toy. After all, construction toys are all about making and building, very literally games in design and making. The exhibition got a lot of positive feedback from schools and parents and since then – as well as completing a masters in architecture – I have been trying to put Noook into production so that we can continue the mission of introducing children to making and design through play.
LT: What’s Noook’s USP?
TS: The really unique thing about Noook is that it offers an entirely new and innovative way for children to build. Unlike the bricks or nuts and bolts of most construction toys, it isn’t designed for strength or efficiency but for creative play. It’s designed to be as open-ended as possible, to stretch imaginations, and importantly, it’s great at building big. The second way in which it’s unique is its design quality. We hope to provide an eco-friendly, quality alternative to the toy department, which is currently saturated with plastic tat marketed on gender, licence and gimmick.
LT: What quantities does Noook come in?
TS: It comes in packs of 25, 50 and 75, as well as larger institutional-sized packs on special request. We find that 20 is the minimum needed for a good play experience, to build something like a teepee. With packs of 50 and 75, you can build proper play houses.
LT: Are there any colour options?
TS: We produce Noook in a whole rainbow of colours and as we develop, we hope to add to this with unique designs and patterns.
LT: What’s the product’s lifespan?
TS: Noook is made out of a really tough and rigid paper sheet, so although it’s made from recycled paper, it’s actually incredibly durable. It even comes in a waterproof version. We believe that given reasonable use, a pack should last for years.
LT: Who’s your target audience?
TS: In some sense, as a den building toy, our target audience is very wide. Den building is a very widespread play that for some reason hasn’t really been designed for and we hope Noook addresses that need. More specifically, Noook is targeting an audience actively looking for a quality alternative to the current toy department, which doesn’t patronise children with garish branding. People seeking a wholesome, classic, open-end making toy compared to the themed kits that other brands are currently focusing on. We hope to fill the £30-£100 price gap for play houses. A kit of 25 Noook will retail for about £30-£40 and wholesale for around £12-£16, but these figures need to be confirmed and will likely be negotiable upon scale.
LT: What was the response to Noook at Bubble?
TS: We were really happy with the response we got. This was the first time we’d shown Noook directly to the children’s industry, so it was great to get positive validation directly from our target market. It gave us a lot of confidence. It was great to see that people ‘got’ Noook instantly and picking up the Rising Star Award at an exhibition full of children’s products was really a fantastic validation for us.
LT: Where are you looking to next for growth and development?
TS: Our main focus is launching Noook and focusing on the core product shown at Bubble. The ethic behind Noook is not to try and reinvent it each year, but instead to build a business around a core, classic product that doesn’t require anything else. Saying that, there are a few alternatives and additions that make sense. The basic Noook in a few different sizes and shapes could help play, as well as a few useful accessories like a blanket designed for play and making dens.
The next design job, however, will see us focus on an addition for Noook that helps spark creativity. Noook is a great 3D canvas for making things, but a blank canvas can be daunting for even the most creative. Where other toys provide step-by-step instructions that dictate, we want to inspire. To do this we would like to develop something to help children come up with ideas.
We’re thinking about producing a set of cards with creative ‘tools’ and inspiration, or even a set of stories, as story books are very inspiring for kids. By creating an ever-evolving series of stories around a few characters and objects (which would come as paper sheet cutouts to attach to Noook) we hope to inspire children and allow them to easily build these stories.
Although Noook is unlikely to be a toy that uses licences, I do wonder if there is room for collaborations with graphic and fashion designers who share our interest in providing kids with design of genuine social and cultural quality.
LT: What are your short and long term plans?
TS: Immediately, our focus is on launching and turning Noook into a successful business by getting the product right and building the brand in order to take it to the high street and internal market.
Longer-term, I want to build Noook to be something I can look back on and be proud of. It would be great if it turned into an iconic design that the toy people fondly remember. I also hope Noook provides me with a stepping stone in my career, giving me the experience, reputation, and finances to set up my own design studio.