this things incredible

I’m So Tickled By This Nothing Little Desk Toy

The author’s Hoptimist on her desk. Photo: Courtesy of Chantel Tattoli

On a 2009 trip to Copenhagen, when I wasn’t looking at swans or mermaids or watching Aqua perform “Barbie Girl” live, I kept seeing something bright, rotund, and spring-loaded for sale, something called a Hoptimist. As I learned, it is an iconic piece of “happiness-inducing design” created in the 1960s by the Danish cabinetmaker Hans Gustav Ehrenreich.

“Workers were top of his mind,” says Poul Christoffersen, Hoptimist’s brand manager. Whereas some Danish modern designers built quality affordable furniture that wed form and function and bettered the lives of the middle class, Ehrenreich, bless him, built the working folks figurines. He knew times were tough, and he wanted to spread joy. (He provided his own factory employees with a kindergarten, bring-home dinner services, and holidays in Majorca.) Hoptimists had a hot run but were discontinued in the ’70s. They were reborn in 2009 amid a newfound appetite for mid-century Danish design.

At the time Hoptimists reemerged, I was spending a few weeks in Denmark annually, and because I had come to believe in this happy country that could find so many ways to design a trivet, I invested in a wooden Bumble in the original four-inch size.

Bumble (a him) and Bimble (a her) are by far the most popular of the Hoptimist models, which also include a bird and a frog. You press on their heads to make them bounce up and down as if they’re LOLing their bobbly heads off. And that’s it. That’s all they do. It’s very silly and so sincere. You’d be surprised what they can do for lifting one’s mood. No one gets that hope springs eternal — or that we sometimes ought to laugh to keep from crying — like a Hoptimist does. And you’d probably have to be a sour soul indeed not to crack a smile, or at least a smirk, while watching this thingy go. I am given to catastrophizing, but this doojigger helps me to pause, get perspective, and reset with a sense of humor. The other day, for example, I turned to Bumble while despairing over an investigative story I had worked on for a year, unsure of whether it was worthwhile or even readable. LOL-LOL-LOL-LOL-LOL.

Seventy-five percent of Hoptimists are made of plastic (the same stuff from which Lego bricks, also Danish, are cast). They come in 18 colors, in sizes S through XL, and can cost as little as $20. (Ehrenreich originally minted them in yellow, red, blue, white, and orange.) The figures also come in raw oak, oiled oak, black-stained oak, or smoked oak (like mine) with inlaid eyes of wengé. “Classics with a little more class,” marketing copy once suggested of these all-wood “supermodels.” There are specialty Hoptimists for holidays, weddings, soccer clubs, what have you, and a lamp adapted from a 6- or 9-inch-tall Bumble (starting at about $100 in plastic and $250 in wood).

The Hoptimist is relevant and effective even if it’s damfool and kitsch. It makes a sweet gift for kids and adults, is a toy and a design object, and ideally stays with its owner for a while. The idea of a cherished item changing with you as you age comes from a Danish tradition that goes back to Hans Christian Andersen’s literary fairy tales, which were intended to be read (and appreciated differently) throughout one’s life.

What played as a cute gag in my 20s, when I got my Hoptimist, plays now in my 30s as real wisdom. It’s not exactly analogous to, say, Kay Bojesen’s famed wooden monkey “toy” from 1951 that hangs around impishly but never seems to lose her dignity. “That’s a more intellectual piece, in a way,” says Sidsel Alling, a contributing editor at ELLE Denmark. But both designs get that the playfulness that serves the child also serves the weary grown-up.

These days, my smoked-oak Bumble is gently beaten up, having moved with me over the past decade across states and continents and more recently fallen into the hands of my toddler, who I think confused it with a Slinky. That’s okay! Bumble has lived. Frankly, it makes his brand of optimism even more convincing. When I engage him at my desk, stuck on a story or in a funk over something little that feels big, or something actually big, I tend to telepathically cheer him on — “Bounce, Bumble! Bounce!” — fully realizing I’m really telling myself that I too can always bounce back.

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I’m So Tickled By This Nothing Little Desk Toy