"Our philosophy is that animals should be able to withstand more than one generation of children. That is why we choose robust fabrics that can withstand the conditions in a child's room."
"We want to make a beautiful, loving, product that sets points of light in everyday life"
I still remember the day we first stopped at the Senger Stuffed Animals booth at the Nurnberg Toy Fair in 1998. I was with my business partners - my mother (Margaret) and step-father (Rick). We were all so impressed with their stuffed animals and presentation that we stopped and met Volker and Sabine Senger.
Rick was raised in Germany so he was able to speak with Volker in German. I didn't follow much of the conversation but I could quickly tell that a friendship was quickly forming.
We often ran into Volker and Sabine, whether at the NY Gift Show, or in Nurnberg, and always enjoyed seeing the newest additions to their family, and catching up on business and life. Each time we talked about how we'd love to distribute Senger in America, and each time we both recognized the product was priced such that it could only be sold directly from them to stores.
Eventually, as we developed our retail business a few years ago, we were so excited to add Senger to our product line. I don't know if we were more excited to be able to sell this marvelous brand of organic cotton stuffed animals, or if it was so we could begin actually working with Volker and Sabine.
Either way, a highlight of our annual trip to the Nurnberg Toy Fair is to stop at the Senger booth, see the new products and catch up.
It is our pleasure to introduce you to the two wonderful people behind Senger in this exclusive interview.
What Inspired You To Create Your Business?
Volker Senger grew up in the village of Obersinn. He met his wife, Sabine, in Berlin where he was studying psychology for several semesters.
"During this time," Volker recalls, "I published a comic magazine in Sweden with a friend who is a painter and caricaturist. He made the drawings, while I wrote the lyrics. I was in Sweden for a month and in Berlin for a month. When our financier stopped the project, I thought about what I should do in the future."
"At the beginning of the summer, my wife and I moved from the big city of Berlin to Sinn, which is idyllically situated between the Spessart and Rhön. My mother owned a small clothing factory in Obersinn. Since she retired in the early 1970s, the sewing machines in the deserted rooms have been idle. We weren't very interested in ready-made clothing, so for a while, we made dolls on the side on a whim. Neither of us were specialists; my wife was a bookseller, while I completed an apprenticeship as a tailor, but never worked in the industry. We took a closer look at the market: dolls like ours were everywhere. And it wasn't very creative either, just using ready-made things."
Then, Sabine Senger adds, “I managed a children's book department; many, many children's books have passed through my hands. Kenneth Grahame's 'The Wind in the Willows' was probably a big influence on me when it came to the mouse family. These are stories with a mole, a water rat, a toad, and mice, each animal has a specific character. You travel through the forest, and experience the strangest adventures."
She continues, “I wanted to make a nice birthday present for my friend's two-year-old daughter, it was supposed to be a stuffed animal. We made a sketch: it became a mouse. Of course, she looked a bit different than ours today, because we put our mouse head on a normal doll body. Laura loved her mouse more than anything. Philip, as she called the mouse, had to go everywhere. And soon the other children in the children's shop also wanted such an animal doll."
“The first mouse was 45cm (18”) tall, a common doll size. There were also children, because we wanted to emphasize the family character. We went to Berlin with our first collection and boldly presented it in alternative wooden toy shops. They were thrilled, the figures were unique."
"Our animal family grew, an elephant was added, and later the rabbits. We traveled across Germany and offered them in alternative shops. You can recognize these shops by their names. The reactions were mostly very positive. Some found our creatures a bit too bizarre, and others were enthusiastic. Not everyone likes mice: 'We have enough mice in the basement and don't want them on the sofa too.' The Berliners gave us a lot of encouragement. They are more relaxed about things and are always up for new, funny things."
How Would You Describe Your Company To Someone Who Had Never Heard Of It?
"The world of SENGER revolves around cuddly animals, hand puppets, grabbing toys, furniture and much more – always around to bring joy and comfort.
SENGER was founded over 30 years ago by Sabine and Volker SENGER. To this day, they both work on each product design with their own needle and thread. Paired with the fact all of our toys are hand-tailored, it means every product is unique in its own way. Our experience has shown that the first toy a child loves earns a very special place in their heart that cannot be replaced, which is why we put so much attention to detail in all our products.
Sustainability is also at the heart of our brand, ensuring we use robust, quality materials that are free from harmful chemicals. This is especially important due to the close physical contact between a child and their toy – sure to guarantee long-lasting companionship.
When selecting our materials, we pay particular attention to ensuring they originate from Germany – including sourcing new sheep’s wool from wandering sheep from the Eifel region, spelt from the Swabian Alb and cherry wood from the Ore Mountains."
“Sustainability is also at the heart of our brand, ensuring we use robust, quality materials that are free from harmful chemicals."
What is the mission of your business?
"We want to make a beautiful, loving, product that sets points of light in everyday life. We firmly believe that you can put positive energy into a product. That is our company philosophy. People say you can feel that our animals are made with love down to the last detail.
In this respect, our company is deliberately different from many other companies in the toy industry. A rethink should begin; an overcrowded children's room with all kinds of cheap plush does not invite imaginative play."
Tell us about the team behind your business. Where are you based?
“As we are already in retirement (somehow :D, as we are still involved in every year’s new creations), most of the everyday business lies in the hands of our Brand Manager Jessica, and her team. Since last year Sina, as well as Nathalie, joined her to address all issues by our loyal customers. Besides this, we have our sewing workshop with more than 40 people where our wonderful fluffy friends are created.”
What do you draw inspiration from? Who inspires you? Are there certain artists, companies or people that lift you up?
Volker Senger: Before we create a new animal for our range, we carefully observe these animals. We have a pig farm in the forest, where the pigs live fenced in the open air. The ears and snout shouldn't look too abstract, but look like a real pig. The ears are very important for all animals; they give certain signals, and make their language.
For example, if little wolves are scared, they put their ears back. With a dog, you can immediately tell from the ears whether or not you can approach it. It's the same with horses. If a donkey pins, or lays its ears back, it is better to keep your distance.
The ears are a kind of trademark for good design. For the rabbits, as an example, we chose soft, hanging ears; they almost look like a hairstyle and feel good.
Which product that you’ve created is your favorite? Which one are you most proud of?
The floppy bear - a kind of classic that evokes childhood memories even in adults. You can actually find such a bear in every household, even with grandparents.
What is a particular challenge to running your company that may come as a surprise to customers?
Ever since we created our first animal, we only used natural products of organic quality. Everything is made from the best wool and cotton and sewn with great care.
Our philosophy is that animals should be able to withstand more than one generation of children. That is why we choose robust fabrics that can withstand the conditions in a child's room. Every part is examined before it leaves our company. It rarely happens, but if something is wrong, we fix it.
The velvety fur of the animals is hand-woven from pure organic cotton. "It was difficult to find the company," recalls Volker Senger, "there are practically no more hand-weaving mills that make their own plush in Germany."
And in fact, we have not changed any of our suppliers in recent years, which makes us really happy to be able to buy such outstanding and long-lasting quality regionally and from Germany.
Nevertheless the advantages, sometimes it impedes production due to limited capacities of our supplier or missing input goods. For example, we are missing the filling with cherry stones this year as there were too less cherries growing last year. We need to adapt to these circumstances quickly, so we changed the fillings to grape seeds.
Tell us about your customers. What type of person is typically a fan of your company?
“Every lover of high-quality, purely ecological and therefore harmless companions for young and old. Our cuddly toy geese in particular have shown that adults can also find good use for them. Be it as a travel pillow or for use every evening.”