The latter part of the 19th century and early years of the 20th century were years of significant changes in the philosophy of living, artful expressionism and freedom for women in the arts. Elena di Scavini, known to the world as Lenci, came out of this period to design and manufacture some of the most coveted dolls collected today.
Elena König, called Lenci by her family, was born in Turin, Italy on February 28, 1886 to an Austrian mother and a father whose family roots were in Germany. Her early life was marked by the death of her father, leaving herself and her siblings in need of working at young ages to help support the family. Throughout her teen and young adult years Elena would hold a number of jobs including housekeeper, companion, language tutor, nanny, saleswoman and even at one point working as a circus performer! Through her various jobs and relations, she moved around Europe, experiencing many cultures and broadening her view of life before returning to Turin in 1905.
Along the way she also learned to paint and in 1906 Elena decided to moved to Dusseldorf, Germany to become an art student. She studied drawing, engraving, batiks and other traditional art forms and received a diploma as a Master of Photography. During this time, she became part of a thriving art culture. Interestingly, this same experience was being sought and discovered by female artists throughout the western world including others such as Marion Kaulitz, Grace Drayton, Käthe Kruse, and Rose O’Neill, to name just a few, all of whom would leave their own mark on the history of dolls.
In 1914 Elena accepted a marriage proposal from Enrico di Scavini and moved with him to Turin, Italy, becoming an Italian citizen. The couple married in January of 1915. During WWI while Enrico was away serving as an aviator, she lost their first child. In an effort to fill her time as well as to bring in some money she turned to doll making. These early dolls were of woven fabric and had yarn hair. She was encouraged to continue in doll making when she witnessed a neighbor child imaginatively playing with the doll she had given him.
After the war the Enrico tried selling some of Elena’s dolls but did not meet with much success. Although Elena was advised to change her concept for her dolls, she opted to remain true to her inner artistic voice as she continued to experiment and refine her process. She eventually decided on working with molded felt to create three-dimensional faces. While showing her dolls to some of their art world friends the couple got their foot in the door to the doll business. One of their friends was Mr. Lipp of America. Lipp’s father had asked him to look for European goods that could be sold in America. Lipp decided to bring home a consignment of Lenci’s dolls. Apparently this first group of dolls never even made it to America as Lipp sold every one of them while on the sea voyage home. Another order of 300 dolls was placed and the new company, Scavini Dolls, was off and running.
In 1919 Enrico applied for a US patent for a method of making fabric doll heads and the doll making business began in earnest. The process continued to be refined until the dolls were being made with the face, neck front, and back of the head fashioned from a single piece of felt which had glue painted on the inside. Once the glue dried the piece was steamed and then heat pressed over a form. After molding, the inside was re-enforced with a layer of heavily starched buckram, the resulting heads had a very smooth finish. The back of the head was stitched with a zig-zag style of stitching which gave greater strength to the seam. The facial features were painted.
In 1920 the Scavinis exhibited their dolls at The Leipzig Fair in Germany where they were received with high praise. By 1921 the line had increased to include over 100 different models. From 1919 through 1921 the dolls were marketed under the name Scavini Dolls but in 1922 Enrico registered the name Lenci, which was Elena’s pet name, as the trademark for the dolls. Lenci dolls are the epitome of the Art Deco philosophy of bringing art into everyday objects. Both the toy critics and the Lenci advertisements referred to these dolls as “highly artistic” and having “true to life expressions”. The dolls were very costly right from the start and were marketed to adults as well as to children, with advertising that suggested that a Lenci doll would look smart seated in the drawing room or in one’s limousine!
By 1922 Lenci had showrooms in London, Paris, Leipzig, and New York. In addition to their dolls Lenci also made hats, bags, tea cozies, egg covers, and other decorative items for the home. Testimony to the success and appeal of the Lenci dolls is the fact that they were so widely imitated, with doll companies all over the world copying the general look of the dolls. These imitations run the gambit from low quality knock-offs to better quality art dolls in their own right. In 1923 the company adopted Ludus Est Nobis Constanter Industria (To Play Is Our Constant Work) as their motto.
The company experienced success in the early 1920s but toward the end of the decade they began to be impacted by the economic challenges facing the world. A number of their retail accounts found themselves unable to pay for the dolls they had ordered, one distributor even killed himself rather than face financial ruin. This combined with the many lower quality, less expensive copies of Lenci dolls that appeared in the market led to the Scavini’s need to bring in additional financial backers.
In 1933 they were introduced to the Garella Brother, Pilade and Flavio, who along with another partner contracted to bring in an injection of capital to the floundering company. This financial aid came at the price of turning over the management of the company to the Garella Brothers. By 1936 the relationship between the partners was so strained that the Scavinis sold out their remaining share of the company to the Garellas. Elena was kept on as an employee of the company she had started, contracted to remain as a designer for 5 years.
Under the direction of the Garellas the Lenci company experienced both successes and challenges through the 1930s until WWII disrupted the doll business. Elena ended her association as a designer for the company in 1940. After the war the company continued under the Garella family, passing to Pilade’s son Beppe, then to his daughter Bibija and eventually to his son Lazzaro. Although the company enjoyed some renewed success making a variety of products through the remainder of the 20th century it is the story of the company founder and her commitment to high-quality artful dolls that lives on most closely in the hearts of doll lovers in the 21st century.
Author – Linda Edward
Dorothy S. Coleman Lenci Dolls. Riverdale: Hobby House Press, 1977
Linda Edward Cloth Dolls From Ancient To Modern. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing, 1997
Nancy Lazenby Lenci, The History and the Dolls. Cumberland: Reverie, 2007
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