Dutch creator of Miffy the rabbit dies at 89

THE HAGUE - Dutch artist and illustrator Dick Bruna, creator of beloved children's character Miffy the white rabbit, has died aged 89, his publishing house said Friday.

The author, who penned 124 picture books during a career which spanned six decades, died in his sleep late Thursday in his hometown of Utrecht, publishers Mercis said.

Over 85 million Miffy books have been sold around the world, translated into more than 50 languages.

"It has been a great privilege to have known and worked with Dick Bruna so intensively over the past 40 years," Mercis director Marja Kerkhof said in a statement.

His death was a "great loss for Dutch design," added Marco Grob, from the Utrecht Central Museum, which also runs a museum dedicated to Miffy that opened in February 2016.

Bruna's work "forms a bridge between 20th and 21st century design," Grob added.

Miffy, the white bunny with two dots for eyes and a cross for her mouth, was inspired by a rabbit seen hopping around the garden during a family seaside holiday in 1955.

At first she was just a character in a bedtime story for Bruna's oldest son Sierk. But then the book illustrator drew her on paper, deciding she should be a girl, as drawing dresses was more fun than trousers.

It is her endearing simplicity, along with her friends like Poppy the kind pig lady and Snuffy the dog, which has cemented the books' universal appeal to pre-schoolers.

"When I'm sitting at my drawing table, it sometimes feels as if a child is standing there looking straight at me," Bruna once said of his work.

"Children have this great directness. It's something I appreciate hugely." .

Bruna's tales, told in small square books designed to fit little hands, help youngsters explore the world through Miffy's adventures to places such as the zoo or the doctor's.

But grown-up art lovers have also praised Bruna's mastery of minimalism.

Bruna was born in Utrecht in August 1927, and had been expected to join the family publishing company, once the largest in The Netherlands.

But drawing and art were his first love, and during a study tour in Paris in the 1940s he was influenced by the works of French painters Henri Matisse and Fernand Leger.

"Matisse of course taught me simplicity, and the use of colours," he said.

"In my work I've also tried to reduce things as much as I could, leaving only the bare essentials." Returning to Utrecht, he started drawing book covers taking one element from a novel to feature on the cover - like a halo for the Dutch series of books "The Saint" or a pipe for the Belgian detective "Maigret".

As Miffy's popularity grew, he devoted himself to her world as well as illustrating and writing other children's books.

Despite his worldwide popularity and the hordes of young fans who trekked to Utrecht to meet him, Bruna, much like his books, led a simple life. Rising before dawn most mornings, he would squeeze a fresh orange juice and draw a picture for his wife, Irene.

Then he would cycle to his airy studio through the cobbled streets and over the canals. With his white handle-bar moustache and twinkling eyes, he looked like everyone's favourite grandpa.

Before he retired in 2011, already in his mid-80s, Bruna admitted starting a new book was always nerve-wracking.

"When I'm drawing Miffy, just the face the two eyes and the little cross, it can take forever to make her look a tiny bit unhappy, or a tiny bit cheerful," he said. "I spend ages working on these minute details." Each book was hand-drawn. Using a paintbrush dipped in black, Bruna carefully made tiny strokes to craft his character's outlines.

Specially printed coloured paper - blue, green, yellow and what is known as "Bruna red" which has a little orange mixed in to make it warmer - were then slipped behind transparencies to make a kind of collage.

"I have a small talent, and I have to work very hard to do something with it," he said.