Young at heart

Young at heart

Birtolo, Janina

Teddy bears have an enduring charm. Just ask the folks at The Dean’s Company, Great Britain’s oldest teddy bear manufacturerstill going strong as it approaches its second century of bear business.

“This is a lovely industry to be in,” says Neil Miller, who shares ownership of the company with his wife, Barbara. “After all, a teddy bear never did anyone any harm. They’re nice things to be surrounded by.”

Inherent in Neil’s simple comment is his realization of both the allure of bears and the desires of contemporary collectors-a realization that hay allowed the Millers to revitalize and stabilize the company since their purchase of it in 1988.

The Dean’s history is a long one, stretching back to a 111 book publishing business. In the late 1800s, a member of the family branched off with a small screen-printing business, producing fabrics and printed cut-out doll sheets. In 1902, Captain Henry Samuel Dean decided to print a rag book on calico. It was such a success that he established the Dean’s Rag Book Company in Au, gust of the following year.

“That was when they came up with our logo of the bulldog and the terrier-two typically British dogs-tearing at a book to show how inde. structible it was,” Neil reports. “The toy industry was burgeoning all over the world at that time, and soon Dean’s was producing other things, like kites and photo albums.”

Some evidence suggests that Dean’s began making bears as early as 1906, but World War I brought the company into the bear spotlight. In 1915, with the abrupt end to the supply of stuffed bears from Austria and Germany, Dean’s debuted its “Kuddlemee” catalog, which offered three mohair bears. Their success continued after the war, and in 1922 Dean’s presented its own brand of bears.

World War II didn’t bring the same sort of good fortune to Dean’s, however. Bombs hit its factory in Merton, and the economic aftermath of the war kept production limited. An eventual merger with Gwentoys in the early 1970s moved Dean’s to its current location in Pontypool and renewed hope for the future. But by that time, the Asian market was emerging and its inexpensive toys gobbled up marketshare.

“I was brought in in 1987, on the production side,” recalls Neil. “But by 1988, it was clear that either the company was going to disappear or there had to be a management buyout. That’s what my wife and I did. Then we cut back to basically just bears and gollies.”

The Millers not only streamlined the company, they also brought a fresh vitality and wealth of ideas. One of the most successful is the Artist Showcase line originally suggested by son Robin. This line offers collectors a chance to buy artistdesigned bears at a greatly reduced cost through the simple wedding of artists’ designs and mass production.

“The idea was that there was a gap in the market,” Neil explains. “Bear artists tend to produce very expensive bears, but a lot of them couldn’t produce the number they wanted. With our doing the production, a collector can have a bear by a favorite artist at perhaps 60 to 70% of the artist’s price. So we approached those we felt were the best artists at the time.”

The idea was well received, both by artists and collectors, and Dean’s has subsequently offered bears by such recognizable artists as Jill Baxter, Stefanie Thomas, Frank Webster, and Janet Clark. “Dean’s issued a challenge in 1999 for any artist interested in taking part in the 2000 Artist Showcase. Chinese Gooseberry by Faith Jenkins, already a sold-out edition, was one winner, and Linda Klay from the United States has two bears in this section.” The third winner of the Dean’s Challenge, British artist Jackie Eeles, has two new bears in the Artist Showcase.

In addition to creating the Artist Showcase, taking over the helm at Dean’s has allowed Neil and Barbara to stretch their own artistic muscles. The 1999 summer Artist Showcase featured Forsyth, a 19-inch, wide-muzzled bear designed by Neil, and the Millers work collaboratively to design most of the other limited-edition bears as well. “It kind of grew like Topsy,” Neil says of the arrangement, “but it’s become something we’re both comfortable with.”

Ideas for the designs tend to be guided by the market. “We have to be commercial,” Neil says. “We have a team that discusses ideas and analyzes what’s sold. It’s very much a logical decision. At that point, Barbara and I go and select fabrics. Then I’ll depart and do the patterns. Barbara takes over for the rest.”

In addition to the Artist Showcase bears, the line has evolved to include limited editions and standard editions, as well as gollies and postcards. Ranging in size from 7 to 38 inches, these bears might be part of a family, such as 14-inch Merlot and 11-inch Burgundy from the Think Pink Rides Again line; could be dressed in “woolies,” overalls, or simple bows, such as dungaree-wearing 16inch Mungo; or be created, like 13-inch Max and 8-inch May, as companion pieces. To benefit the Arthritis Research Campaign, Dean’s developed a 13-inch antique-looking bear based on a 1930s pattern from their archives. A portion of the sale from this bear, called Charity Bear, benefits arthritis research. Also new is the Dean’s Elite lineeight bears made from exquisite mohair and alpaca.

Some 200 different designs could be available during the course of a year, with 30 to 40 available at any given time. Most are made of mohair in various shades, textures, and levels of distress, and many are stuffed with bean bags. At Dean’s, their London Gold bears have been a mainstay for years, and these child-safe bears recall the type of teddies remembered from childhood.

Prior to coming to Dean’s, Neil had 10 years’ experience in the toy industry, though none in the bear-making business. Barbara’s experience, he adds, was the hands-on variety that comes from raising three children. Obviously, both are now very much at home in the world of bears.

They’ve even become collectors, of a sort. “It would be unwise of me to choose a favorite,” Neil says. “But, every so often, when the girls have done Barbara’s wishes and it’s not acceptable, that bear sort of goes home with us. We now have about 50 or 60 of them. But I don’t really classify us as collectors.”

Collectors or not, the Millers are obviously enjoying what they do. And they’ve noticed a gratifying resurgence of interest in the manufactured-bear market. “I can only speak of the market in Britain,” Neil says. “Four or five years ago, artist bears ruled the roost. But in the last two years, we’ve seen a definite change. Whether that’s a reaction to our designs or a genuine market change, I don’t know.”

Regardless of the underlying cause, the shift is both welcome and a fitting legacy for an “old” company that remains young at heart.

Copyright Cowles Enthusiast Media Sep/Oct 2000

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.