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The Rabbit: design icon

After 30 years doesn’t the vibrator deserve classic status?

When we think of iconic designs of the 20th century – the VW Beetle, the Polaroid camera, the Eames ‘Relax’ lounge chair – we don’t automatically think of candy-pink plastic, battery-operated phalluses. Perhaps we should.

Because in 1984, a Japanese electronics company called Vibratex created a (bedroom) game-changing sex toy, the first and only one to have an impact on mainstream popular culture. Thirty years on, we believe the ever-popular Rabbit vibrator can rightly be called a classic.

All truly innovative design has a backstory of necessity prompting invention. In Japan “realistic” sex toys are forbidden, so canny toy designers would create “bright totem-style toys with cute clitoral stimulators in the shape of bunnies, with quivering ears – or beavers with flickering tongues,” explains Kathryn Hoyle, MD of Sh! Women’s Emporium. It was no mere gimmick; form followed function. “The rabbit ears stimulate the sides of the clitoris, rather than applying direct pressure, which most women find too intense to be pleasurable,” says Kathryn. “Therefore the design replicates the way many women masturbate.”

In August 1992 Kathryn and her Sh! co-workers spotted a pile of dusty boxes in a sex toy wholesaler warehouse. “Inside was something very different to all the huge, veined toys prevalent at the time – this was pink, with candy-coloured beads in the shaft,” recalls Kathryn. The name on the box read ‘Roger Rabbit’, and after giving Roger a spin and realising they had a hit on their hands, they renamed it ‘Jessica Rabbit’.

The Jessica Rabbit quickly became a top-seller for Sh! and featured in a string of women’s magazines, but it was only in the late Nineties that she became a respectable member of society. In summer 1998, HBO’s was one of the highest-rated sitcoms of the season, and when prim Charlotte became addicted to a little pink something called the Vibratex Pearl in episode nine, the Rabbit was suddenly as sought-after as Carrie’s Manolo Blahniks.

“The particular genius was having Charlotte being the one to stay home with her rabbit rather than go out for cocktails,” observes Kathryn. “This was a real permission-giving moment, enabling all women, even the shy, romantic or slightly prudish ones who’d say, ‘I’m SO a Charlotte’, to feel fine about buying a sex toy.”

This was swiftly followed, in 1999, by Cosmo’s first feature on women, masturbation and sex toys – featuring the Jessica Rabbit. “Prior to this, sex toys were all about playing with your partner – but this helped British women realise that it was OK to play with yourself – other women did,” says Kathryn. “It sent sales stratospheric.” Rabbits hopped off the shelves like never before.

Purely as a piece of product design, the Rabbit is a triumph. The inoffensive name and kitsch colours mean that “nice” girls feel OK walking into a sex store and picking it off the shelves. Unlike the veined monstrosities that went before, it’s photogenic enough for glossy TV shows and glossy magazines. And above all, it works – the Rabbit is still most women’s “first” vibrator, and the one they return to after a brief fling with a Pebble or a Bone. Last week, at the prestigious Cannes Lions Awards for product design, Swedish adult toy designers LELO’s ORA “personal massager” (AKA oral-sex simulator) beat brands such as Samsung, Coca-Cola and Jawbone to win the coveted product design Lion; the first ever sex toy to be recognised. OK, unlike a LELO creation, we can’t quite imagine putting a Rabbit on our mantelpiece. We’re not going to pretend it’s beautiful. But innovative? Game-changing? Iconic?