On a white background, two black dots and a cross have become shorthand for a rabbit. Not Roger or Bugs, Peter or Thumper, but a bunny whose simple features are every bit as familiar as her big-name brothers. You might remember Miffy from your own early adventures in reading. You might be one of the 85 million people who have bought a Miffy storybook. You might have seen her peeping out from a pencil case. Chances are, even if you're not familiar with the books she stars in, you'll recognise her face. After all, this little rabbit is getting on a bit – she's just turned 55 – but is still going strong. Just like her creator, 82-year-old Dick Bruna, who continues to spend every day drawing Miffy, as he has done for more than half a century.
Bruna was born in The Netherlands in 1927 (the year of the rabbit, according to the Japanese zodiac), while Miffy was conceived in 1955. "I first drew Miffy for my eldest son, who is now 56," explains Bruna from his studio in Utrecht. "We were at the seaside for a holiday and I saw a rabbit running round. I thought I'd try to make a little drawing of it, and that's how Miffy was born." But these early sketches were a world away from the bunny who conquered the world's bookshelves. "There really is an enormous difference between how she looked then and now. She's much more like a human being now," he says. Despite their uniformity of line, Bruna's illustrations are based on observations of the real world. "When I start to draw an animal, I go to the zoo and make very exact drawings of it. Then I go to my studio and remove everything that is not necessary. I keep just the shapes and try to work out what the most important things are."
Using a strict palette of black, white, red, blue, yellow and green ("I'd never use pink or turquoise. Sometimes I use grey when I'm drawing a mouse – I have to"), Bruna has created 118 children's books that, despite their sparse aesthetic, run the gamut of human emotion from friendship and happiness to grief and sadness. Not bad for one little bunny with a cross for a nose. It's this elegant simplicity that Bruna strives for every day when he sits down to create another illustration of Miffy. "In the beginning, I had the idea that I wanted to make things as simple as possible and I still do. It leaves lots of room for children's imaginations." Keeping his work uncluttered and precise is, says Bruna, always difficult. "But in my work I've always been very, very simple. When I was 20, I spent a year in Paris and I was very fond of the work of Henri Matisse. Especially the work he did in his last years, paper cuttings and so on. I thought that that was so simple and beautiful that when I did something, it had to be like that."
Leaf through any of Bruna's books – Miffy at the Seaside, Miffy at the Zoo or, appropriately, Miffy at the Gallery – and you can see that Bruna's work is unashamedly modernist. And those block colours and stark shapes appealed, it's said, to none other than Picasso, who once commented on the beautiful shapes in a Bruna illustration. "I went round with my head in the clouds for weeks afterwards," he says. It's not just Cubists and children who are fans of Miffy, though. She's huge in Japan, a fact that Bruna believes to be down to the similarity between Japanese art and his own work. "In Japan, you'll see gardens with almost nothing in them – but what is there is in exactly the right place. They try to find the same simplicity that I do." But this popularity has had a downside, in the shape of Miffy's nemesis, another pale-faced cutie you might be familiar with – Hello Kitty. Created in 1974 by the Sanrio corporation, her curved lines and back story bear an uncanny resemblance to Miffy. Asked whether he feels the creators of Hello Kitty have taken advantage of Miffy's simplicity, Bruna answers brusquely, "Yes".
But catfights aside, Miffy seems a very happy bunny. With worldwide fame and her very own museum – the Dick Bruna Huis in Utrecht, opened in 2006 – she is also a lucky one: Miffy is brought to life every day by someone who cares about every single brushstroke. "I always work with the same brushes. I never work with a pen, always with a brush and black watercolour. I draw my lines and it takes me lots of time with my little brush. Sometimes it takes me half a day to get a drawing of Miffy really right. When I think it's not right, I do it over. It has to be 100 per cent."
Visit miffy.com. For details about the Miffy museum, go to dickbrunahuis.com. 'Miffy' books are published in the UK by Egmont