Dick Bruna, famed Dutch author, artist, illustrator and graphic designer, passed away on Feb. 16 at age 89.
Bruna has written over 120 books, but is most known for the creation of the character Nijntje—known in English as Miffy—which is the little white rabbit beloved by children all over the world. After her debut in 1995, Miffy quickly spread from the pages of children’s books to various forms of merchandise; now, Miffy has an entire museum in her honor. She can even be spotted on the walls of the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, welcoming visitors to the Netherlands.
The simplicity of Miffy has won the hearts of not only children, but also adults and well respected artists who appreciate the genius that goes into Bruna’s design. Miffy is always represented only by the flat black outline of a bunny, with two black dots for eyes and a small “X” for a mouth.
Yet, through this simple, unchanging face, Bruna could somehow communicate any emotion. With the only variations being perhaps a small teardrop, a hat or an outfit change, Miffy’s lack of defined features makes her all the more expressive. The rest of his aesthetic is similarly minimalistic, as he only used strong lines and primary colors.
To Bruna, visual variation is not what makes the books special. The most important thing, he said, is that “Miffy is always Miffy.” Surely, it’s this universal nature that propelled the little white bunny into such popularity; the 32-book series has been translated into over 50 languages and has sold over 85 million copies.
“He’s the most translated author in the Netherlands, except for Anne Frank,” children’s book author Agnes Vogt said in a New York Times article.
But despite her simplicity, an impressive amount of effort and expertise goes into every single frame.
“For a book of 12 pictures, I make at least a hundred,” Bruna said.
He would draw her again and again, ensuring that Miffy’s face was showing the right emotion. Her face is constant, but her moods are precise and thoughtful. With only two eyes and a mouth to work with, Bruna would craft just the right Miffy for each story—she could look sad or happy, surprised, disappointed or slightly cross. Even his tools were made with the utmost care, as Bruna used only paintbrushes that he cut himself.
Considering Bruna’s family and background, however, it’s no wonder he developed such a knack for precision and a strong philosophy for design. Born in Utrecht to a family of publishers in the Dutch countryside, Bruna started out designing and illustrating over 100 posters and 2,000 book jackets for the family business. As a child, he didn’t attend school, so he trained his own artistic eye by studying the work of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.
His early designs often featured silhouettes of figures over solid colors, foreshadowing his style for the Miffy series, which was only a side project. Later, he spent time in France, where he was influenced by the bold, two-dimensional aspects of artists like Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger.
Eventually, Bruna’s true genius matured, as he published his first book in 1953, called De Appel (The Apple). Miffy was born soon after.
Bruna’s legacy is sure to outlive him through the many books he leaves behind and through the image of Miffy, which continues to be present in the Dutch culture as well as around the world. But even in his great success, Bruna’s life didn’t change all that much—he continued to live a humble and simple life, in a way embodying his own artistic identity.