Design: Toys R so us, darling

Even if designer toys fail to impress the children, they'll look great in your Poggenpohl kitchen.
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There is something faintly tragic about censoring toys on aesthetic grounds. I'll never forget the look on my daughter's face when I tried to exchange "Baby", a doll with chartreuse hair and stupendous breasts won in an Italian tombola, for something more tasteful. "But mummy!" pleaded Clara, "She can't help being hideous." I felt like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. I do not wish my children to grow up sinister toy fascists ("Dear Santa, please send me a handcrafted rubberwood artefact. Please make sure it's from a renewable timber source"), but on the other hand, the monstrous regimen of Furbys must be stopped. There has to be a third way, and Soup Dragon, a toyshop with branches in north and south London, might just have found it.

There is nothing in Soup Dragon's stock (also available by mail order) that the most style-conscious parent would not be thrilled to leave strewn about the parquet for the Christmas drinks party, and children won't feel they've been sold a pup, unless of course, it's My Pal (pounds 24.99), a wooden Dalmatian pullalong with a wonderfully responsive action. Designed by a local craftsman, My Pal has proved to be Soup Dragon's most popular toy of the season. His innovative construction - wooden panels on bendy rubber hinges - means that he can chase his own tail in the most satisfying manner. Conor, 11 months, was deeply smitten, lavishing jammy kisses and looking perpetually surprised and delighted to find faithful Pal bowling along behind him. Clara, who at three, is more of a design connoisseur, particularly approved the wagginess of his tail.

Older children will enjoy Soup Dragon's build-your-own automata (pounds 12.30- pounds 15.90). By a remarkably simple peg and ratchet arrangement you can make your man laugh, clap or cycle to beat the band.

At the ever so slightly anal end of the scale, there are George Luck's exquisite picture jigsaws. Framed and glazed like a work of art, these hand-tooled wooden jigsaws feature maps of Great Britain and Ireland or Europe; the interlocking pieces are fashioned in the shape of animals indigenous to each region. This is definitely one for the nursery wall and, at pounds 39.50, is probably more in the christening gift than the Christmas present league.

Another reliable source of handsome, well-made toys is The Hill Toy Company. Their bumper bead-frame (pounds 42.50) has become a contemporary style icon. Frankly, if you go to dinner at any smart house containing small children and don't fall over one of these in the kitchen, you should think twice about further invitations. The extravagant claims made by bead-frame buffs for hand-eye development, colour recognition, dexterity etc are largely guff; you'd get exactly the same educational value from playing with a button box. But this way, there are no bits to be swallowed or pushed up small noses and it does look nice against the Poggenpohl. It kept Conor absorbed for 20 minutes at a stretch, which is good going for a tiny, while Clara made up affecting stories about the "little lonely bead going to join his friends".

She was also very taken with Henri le Lapin (pounds 9.95), a cute wooden rabbit puzzle with interchangeable clothes and facial expressions. Parents will be charmed by Henri's chic French outfits and the sturdy wooden box that provides a "bed" for Henri and a container for all the bits you're not using. On the pointlessly tasteful front, Hill Toys' minimalist natural wood Jumbo Bricks were a bit of non-event. Pleasingly post-modern in shape, they are all very chic and Scandinavian but at the end of the day, they did seem a bit, well, colourless. In a control experiment with these and his own identically shaped coloured bricks, Conor went for the colours every time.

Letterbox is a Cornish mail-order company which imports toys from around the world. Their German-made walking dog (pounds 89.99) is the kind of toy that will become a family heirloom. As the child rocks, the completely non- mechanical dog "walks", or rather, creeps across the floor. It certainly hit the right note with Clara, who went so far as to include it, pointedly, in her bedtime story. Less successful is Letterbox's snapping crocodile, pounds 9.99. Beautifully designed, it is labelled as "unsuitable for children under 36 months" but it is hard to see what any self- respecting child over three would want with a push-along toy.

Finally, if money is no object you could push the boat/car/spaceship out with Dawson and Son's Fantasy Cube, a lovingly finished "life- size" wooden construction set with enough pegs and cogs and ritchety-ratchety things to keep Isambard Kingdom Brunel happy straight through till tea. Conor went for the whirligigs on the front, while Clara pronounced the cube a sleigh and her brother a reindeer and improvised herself a microphone for a shouty version of "Rudolf". If pounds 265 seems a lot to shell out for some very basic materials, bear in mind this is an imagination-powered toy that really will grow with your children.

One cautionary note about designer toys. Your children will naturally abandon them on Christmas morning for the Lap Dancer Barbie that was sent by an unsuitable uncle. But your playroom will never have looked so good.

Stockists: Soup Dragon, 27 Topsfield Parade, Tottenham Lane, London N8 8PT (0181-348 0224); and 106 Lordship Lane, London SE22 8HF (0181-693 5575); mail order catalogue orderline 0870 606 1202 The Hill Toy Company, 71 Abingdon Road, London W8 6AW (0171-937 8797); mail order 01765 689955/0870 6071248

Letterbox mail order 01872 580885

Dawson and Son mail order 01480 309305