Revenge of the Misfit Toys

A year ago, three South Florida friends began sewing plush dolls for fun; now they're at the vanguard of a toy revolution

Mini Malfi looks disgruntled, sitting on the edge of a low Japanese-style coffee table in the living room of a ranch house in Miami Springs. The squat beakless penguin, about half as tall as the original bowling pin-sized Malfi, stares straight ahead. With white Xs for eyes and a red, downturned u for a mouth, he looks like he has something he'd rather not say.

"Pick him up and twist him fast," suggests Sam Borkson, a 24-year-old computer animator-turned-toymaker who is lounging -- all six feet and 200-plus pounds of him -- on a pile of hot pink and camouflage pillows. "He's a drum!" Sam shouts. Thwap, thwap, go Malfi's flaccid arms against his black vinyl skin. The tag flapping against the doll's bottom warns in flowery script, Malfi will bring great wealth or death. Good luck and be careful.

At the head of the coffee table, legs bent beneath her on the Astroturf rug, Melody Lisman uses a loop of Scotch tape to pick invisible lint off a mini Poppings, a cuddly pink cube with heart-shaped eyes, a broad band of brown fur around her belly, and six round removable legs. Everything will be at your fingertips with a lucky Poppings, the doll's tag reads.

Friends bestow magic power: (clockwise from top left) Malfi, Shoe Baca, King Albino, Barby with Spirit Suit, Red Flyer with Pesus, Mr. TTT, Albino Squid, and (center) Poppings
Friends bestow magic power: (clockwise from top left) Malfi, Shoe Baca, King Albino, Barby with Spirit Suit, Red Flyer with Pesus, Mr. TTT, Albino Squid, and (center) Poppings

Reddish hair pulled into a ponytail and cat's eye glasses sliding down her nose, Melody wraps the funky plush toy in a sheet of clear plastic. When the toymakers bought the industrial-sized roll a year ago, Mel's arms couldn't reach around it, even though she is a broad-shouldered, long-limbed five foot eleven. Now the roll is almost gone. She slides the plastic into a machine on the floor beside her to seal Poppings up tight. "That's to make sure nothing gets dirty or wet," the 26-year-old explains.

Her husband, Arturo "Tury" Sandoval, sits across the room on a steel mesh chair. Twenty-seven years old, Tury recently quit his job as a designer with the prestigious Coral Gables advertising agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky to devote himself to toymaking full time. His six-foot-three frame, wild black curls, and shaggy beard look incongruous as he peers at his sketchbook, daintily designing a new line of wooden toys. Both Sam and Tury have additional toy designs drawn in pen on their ankles and forearms like faint tattoos.

Beside Tury, sitting upright and proper, 36-year-old seamstress Yamile Villalobos -- a recent Chilean immigrant the toy designers call Golden Eyes -- smooths the fur of a dozen or so of the Barby with Spirit Suit dolls. Her eyes indeed golden and flecked with light, the former secretary from Santiago fastidiously inspects each mini Barby, removing the dolls' leatherette masks to pick over each mound of white fuzz.

Around 11:00 on a Monday night in mid-October, the Friends with You crew fills the week's orders for 200 mini plush dolls. Retailing at $24.95, the minis introduced by the indie toy company last summer are a bargain compared with the $40 or more charged for the full-size Friends. In a small room at the back of the house, shelves are packed with both sizes of the weird dolls: a whole warped menagerie.

Squeezed in next to Malfi, Poppings, and Barby, there's King Albino, a white brick with an open mouth full of red, pointy teeth; and Shoe Baca, a scruffy sort of upright slipper with small half-moon-shaped arms that his tag identifies as "detachable kidneys." Smiling at the rest of the group is Mr. TTT, a red and orange snaggletooth whose body is made of three separate but linkable parts, like the cars of a train. Looking a bit worried beside him is Albino Squid, a furry white blob with red button eyes and four tentacles of wildly uneven lengths -- kind of like a hallucinogenic Hello Kitty.

Sam, Tury, and Mel founded Friends with You late in the summer of 2002. The two young designers dream up the freaky toys while Mel, using skills honed at her day job as the booking agent for Tury's trumpet virtuoso dad, oversees the operation. She breaks up the occasional wrestling match between her husband and Sam while making contacts with retail outlets, supervising production, and getting the orders out. "She's like the engine and we're like the fuzzy dice," Sam says. "Make money! Make money!" Mel crows, laughing while cracking an imaginary whip over the designers' heads.

Roughly more than a year after founding Friends, the trio is in the vanguard of a growing plush underground. All of a sudden, it seems, the only thing for a design geek to do is to put the computer on standby and pick up a needle and thread. "Because computer art is like cooking in a microwave now," Tury explains, "there's a trend toward doing stuff by hand." Friends share shelf space and bandwidth with a new breed of designers in hip new toy stores for grownups in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, and on the Internet. Cut, stitched, and stuffed, funny little characters jump off the cold computer screen and into the arms of a generation craving something to hold on to in cyberspace. With indie plush, you can actually cradle the design in your hands. Cuddle it even.

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