It looks like a modern-day mangle, it takes a five-year-old 10 minutes to master, and it works like magic. With a turn of its handle, the Stixx Roller transforms a few loosely rolled sheets of newspaper into sturdy batons capable of making a chair strong enough to sit on. It's that simple a child could have thought of it.
Indeed, its inventor, Darcy Turner, has a 12-year-old to thank for the final version of his newspaper construction system. Picking a model from a stack of prototypes, he explains how a pupil at a workshop several years ago forgot to use the dibber arm but still got the machine to work. Darcy dispensed with the extra lever, and the slimmed-down final version was born.
"The kid invented it really," he laughs. But the idea originally came from his own childhood, remembering how he used to unravel paper lollipop sticks. "I thought if I could roll up newspaper the way I used to unroll those sticks, I'd have cracked it." After a series of speculative attempts and many modifications, the Stixx Roller was born.
Because it is so simple to use, the roller takes the hard graft out of craft work, Darcy says, enabling children to build big, bold constructions quickly and easily. Wire ties, tightened with a hand-held ratchet, bind the sticks together.
"Within half an hour they have a big stack of sticks, and there's no stopping them. Then it becomes about what's going on in their heads and not about how clever I am. I don't want to tell them what to do. If they get a good idea and bit of a buzz going they can do marvels."
Workshops weren't always so much fun. When he first went into schools, Darcy was disappointed by the lack of good mat-erials and, consequently, creativity. "The kids weren't making anything. I can't stand that." A furniture-maker by training, his early attempts to get children building tables and chairs from cardboard proved difficult and time-consuming, so he started looking for a a quick and inexpensive construction system.
Freeing children's imagination is the point of his invention, partly because of his own negative experiences of school, which he found boring and oppressive.
"I spent 10 years at school, and everyone told me I was stupid. I failed badly and thought I was an idiot. It took me quite a while to get over that." But he had always enjoyed making things ("when I was a kid I used to build windmills in the garden"), and his enthusiasm and practical nous came to the fore when he left school.
"Once I got to college there were many people with good qualifications who didn't do very much. They would spend the whole time 'hanging out'. But I just got on with it." He's been busy ever since. His workshop for the past two years has been a house next to Sir William Burrough Primary School, in London's East End, where he is artist-in-residence. The two-up, two-down is crammed with all kinds of inventive ephemera and automata, including Heath Robinson-style bubble-blowing machines, a witty, wire-sculpted valentine card (it worked - he's still with her) and a hand-cranked dancing couple.
Darcy pays his rent by working one day a week in the school. Its classrooms and corridors are dotted with examples of the roller's versatility. African masks, stars, a Punch and Judy stall, mini-beasts and a giant figure inspired by Ted Hughes's story The Iron Man are just a few of its products.
As he walks around school, the children shout hello. Artist-in-residence can be a popular position ("I'm a local hero," jokes Darcy), especially when your art is so user-friendly. "It all links up with why I'm so passionate about schools: many of the children are bored at school and don't do much making."
When Darcy launched his invention at the Design and Technology Show in Birmingham last year, people passing his stand weren't stopping at first because what he was offering looked like rolled-up newspaper. But when Darcy started handing out the sticks, they began to take notice. "You don't believe it until you feel it," he says, in what could become the roller's advertising slogan. But he's right - the sticks the machine produces are lightweight and surprisingly strong.
He is not proprietorial about his invention and hasn't had it patented. "Everybody says I should, but in a way I wouldn't mind if a big company took it over and sold it around the world."
He's just glad to have made something so useful. "I get a lot of pleasure out of designing stuff as well as I can. The nice thing about the roller is that it works."
The Stixx Roller starter kit (including the machine, a rack for stacking sticks, and 1,000 wire ties) costs pound;275. Ring 0171 515 7413 or 0171 987 5902 for details and information on workshops. Darcy Turner's wire sculptures are part of the Devious Devices national touring exhibition of new automata, on display until June 4 at Croydon Clocktower. Tel: 0181 253 1030