a UNIVERSAL language

Anne-Claire Petit’s office is filled with paintings, water colours and photos of puppies, songbirds and rabbits. There are postcards of dogs dressed in tailor-made suits in the book case. Curled up in a chair in the corner is equally vigilant and inquisitive Wies, who considers the slightest provocation reason to come a-tail-wagging and a-sizing-up-the-situation. Petit loves animals, that much is clear. ‘There’s not much negativity in the world of animals. I love that. I have an optimistic mindset. And I want to give some of that cute, funny world to others.’


Serving as a showroom, the space behind the sliding doors illustrates her statement. Shelf after shelf is filled with the colourful, crocheted animals with which Petit rose to fame. Mice with comically long legs, cartoonish geese, a chimpanzee with enormous ears. They are sold worldwide, ‘especially abroad’, as the designer observes. ‘My work is perhaps a bit un-Dutch. Because of my name, people often think that it’s French. But my soft toys are sold all over the world, really: in America, Europe and Asia. My visual language is universal.’ She considered studying biology for a while. But Petit, who did a lot of drawing and crafts in secondary school, opted for Industrial Design in Eindhoven. ‘During the first year you still have to do many different things, but I actually knew right away that I wanted to be a textile designer,’ she says. ‘I don’t know exactly where the inclination came from. Perhaps from my granddad, who ran a bags and suitcases factory in the Achterhoek.’


After graduating in 1986, she went to work for Esprit, at that time a very progressive company. Esprit hired architects like Norman Foster and Ettore Sottsass to design its shops, had top photographer Oliviero Toscani shoot its ad campaign and was the first to present an eco-collection. Petit was immediately given a lot of responsibility as well. ‘I designed accessories, socks and scarves. I learned a lot about the manufacturing side of the process in that period.’ She took that knowledge with her when four years later, she decided to create a scarf line and start her own business. ‘Then suddenly you have to do everything yourself, including sell your product. You do have to be open to advice from others, because if you think you can handle everything yourself, you’re going to get stuck. In those early years, I built up the network I still work with.’ After ten years, Petit started to build up an adversion to the fashion circuit. ‘It’s always about new-new-new. A collection only has a chance for half a year and is then written off, even if you make basics. That is a waste and sometimes frustrating as well.’ A way out presented itself in the shape of a bear. ‘I had him made in China by the same people that crocheted my scarves. The bear was an instant hit: everybody wanted one. That meant I could switch from fashion to children’s toys and that turned out really well. The products last so much longer. You don’t just throw away a soft toy, you pass it on to your children or grandchildren. Their value isn’t determined by the season. I have a monkey that has been in the collection for ten years.’


Petit’s animals were made of organically grown cotton and crocheted by hand long before sustainability and craftsmanship became the buzzwords of contemporary design. She had to have them produced in Asia, however. There are hardly any specialists in the field of high-quality technical crocheting in Europe. ‘I employ homeworking women in Chinese villages. I’ve known some of them for twenty years, they’re like family. To boost production, we also started in Nepal a couple of years ago. We ended up in Kathmandu. The whole neighbourhood volunteered immediately. We went over there to meet the people and have them make samples. Gradually, they are developing a higher skill level.’ This is also sustainability, of the social variety. ‘In Nepal, there’s next to nothing, only some income from tourism. But these women now have their own income, which makes them much more independent as well as more valued in the community.’


Once the toy line was on its feet and gradually extending – ‘everything requires thorough testing, even more severely than food’ – Petit started thinking about diversification. Over the past six months she’s been making small wall sculptures of glazed ceramics and braiding with raffia. But more important are the steps she took in the field of home accessories. She designs crocheted plants and giant lobsters for hotels, restaurants and summer houses. Together with the French Airborne she has developed a chair line and the Rijksmuseum sells her dolls on skates. This year, she’ll attend the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna for the very first time. Because yes, she’s also assembled a book. ‘Every six months, we make a kind of diorama for which we photograph our animal collection. The first one was inspired by Abbey Road, then followed a tennis court, a restaurant and now a gym – complete with all the equipment, of course. The whole thing is made to measure, so it’s a shame to throw it away and that’s why we decided to use the photos in a book, as picture puzzles for toddlers. But actually, it’s a happy book for everyone.’


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This interview was published in WOTH No5. This issue is still available in english via Bruil & van der Staaij. Or get a subscription here! 

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