Children have been enjoying Miffy for generations. After 50 years, the world’s best-loved bunny has a permanent home.  DAMIEN NOWICKI reports.

Technically, Miffy is supposed to be for kids. The cute girl rabbit with a cross for mouth and nose, two dots for eyes and a rather blank expression is tailor-made for entertaining the little ones. Uncomplicated, plucky and always open to new ideas, she has been delighting tots for 50 years with stories about puddles, puppies, trips to the beach, counting to 10 and the delights of helping mum. I’m in my late twenties and certainly don’t have children, so what’s Miffy got to do with me? Shouldn’t I be more interested in Dutch icons for grown-ups like Vincent van Gogh? Yet, there’s something about that little rabbit that seems to captivate all ages.

It’s a fact that I’m finding increasingly hard to deny as I enter Miffy’s new permanent home in Utrecht – the Dick Bruna House – with nary a little’un in sight. Named after Miffy’s creator, the museum has invited us for a sneak preview ahead of the official opening. As I step through the front door I’m confronted by Miffy mania. In the Miffy shop hundreds of cute fluffy Miffys are stacked alongside an array of Miffy books in all different languages. We pass a tea-tray piled high with Miffy biscuits and up to an enormous golden Miffy, brassy enough to put a fear of bunnies into anyone. Entering a multimedia room I can’t help but notice that the benches, peek-a-boo windows and three-dimensional displays are at ankle height. It’s all cute, but I’m starting to feel as out of place as Chuck Norris in a doily shop.

But this is no mere children’s playground, it’s an homage to the art of one man. Entering the upstairs gallery, it’s clear why this is the Dick Bruna Huis and not the Miffy Museum. The walls are covered with designs – illustrations, book covers and posters – which all bear Bruna’s direct two-dimensional style. As a young man, Bruna knocked back an opportunity to take over his family publishing business, instead working as the in-house designer, creating thousands of eye-catching book sleeves from 1952-75. And we’re not talking storytime material – Bruna’s distinctive covers brought to life anything from racy thrillers to political treatises by Susan Sontag.

The museum’s footage of Bruna at work is a surprise. It’s easy to imagine his minimalist black outlines are sketched rapidly like a cartoon. In reality, each line is painted slowly and painstakingly, at times he uses both hands for extra control. He says his style was largely inspired by an early trip to Paris when he discovered the work of modernists such as Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger. It may seem outrageous to put a children’s author in the same sentence as European greats, but in Holland Bruna is a modern Dutch Master in the line of Rembrandt and Vermeer, a natural successor to the harmony, order and austere line of the De Stijl tradition.

The simple genius of Miffy is most apparent in Bruna’s obsessive minimalism. He almost exclusively uses primary colours. Characters are never seen in profile. It is with the slightest adjustments to the facial ‘X’ that Bruna switches Miffy from happy to sad. Sometimes he tilts the ears to create a slightly different mood. Examples of Bruna’s art have long been displayed at Utrecht’s Centraal Museum and with Miffy’s ever-increasing popularity it was only natural that they should have their own house. The sprightly 78-year-old has been heavily involved in its creation and, luckily for us, is on hand to welcome us. He possesses all the magical qualities that you’d hope to find in the father of an illustration icon – particularly an amusing moustache and a Willy Wonka-like sparkle in his eye.

Bruna explains that he came up with the idea for Miffy more than 50 years ago, when on holiday with his family.

“I was with my wife and my son at the seaside and then each evening I would tell him a story,” he says. “Then one day we saw a rabbit and so I made up a story about it. Miffy At The Seaside became my first book.”

Miffy is now one of Holland’s greatest exports, bringing in more than £170 million a year. The books have been translated into 40 different languages and sold 85 million copies. She’s an official ambassador for New York and massive in Japan, home of the eerily Miffy-like Hello Kitty.

Despite his enormous success and wealth – Miffy is worth more than £300 million – Bruna is loved as a down-to-earth local in Utrecht, where he is often seen riding his bike around the canals. He admits to us that he’s quite shy, and gets nervous when reading his books for groups of children.

At the airport on the journey home I’m still wondering whether this striking design should be left for the kids when I come across a stall selling hundreds of Miffy keychains – not an item of great use to most toddlers I know. It’s clear the horse has already bolted. We nicked Harry Potter and Halloween from the little tackers, so I guess there’s no reason why Miffy shouldn’t be ours too.”