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

Whether Friends with You is about art or commerce is one of many stock disagreements in Tury and Sam's repertoire, often resolved by body slams and punches to the gut.

"There is a big difference between art and a product," Tury begins.

"We fight about this every day," Sam interrupts. "I think it's art and a product. It's a way for me to get my art in everyone's hands. I'd like everybody to be able to feel my art instead of having to be an asshole and know where the cool galleries are."

Malfi poses for a portrait by Tury (left); David Choe paints a mural for the "Treasure Whale" show; the wizard prepares for a wild night
Malfi poses for a portrait by Tury (left); David Choe paints a mural for the "Treasure Whale" show; the wizard prepares for a wild night

Calmly continuing with her work, Melody is as unconcerned about the fighting as she is about Friends with You potentially selling out. "We'd just come up with a new line," she says with a shrug.

"We're trying to sell out so hard," Sam adds. "We're out of college. We're not trying to stay underground. We're ready to go mainstream."

On a turntable on the bookshelf that holds Melody's collection of brightly wrapped Asian candy, an old 33 1/3 record plays at 33 speed. The singer's voice sounds mournful, confused. The tune swells and fades like a song in a dream. "I thought this was some retarded guy with a bow tie and his hair combed nicely to the side," says Sam, smoothing the unruly hair above his left ear to illustrate. In fact it is a 1949 Decca recording of Ethel Merman doing Annie, Get Your Gun. Played at the wrong speed, it is a Friends with You favorite.

The friends have always liked things off-kilter, especially each other. Mel and Tury met in 1993 at age sixteen, at Prince's old club Glam Slam, now Level, on Washington Avenue. Green-haired and crazy cool, Mel was the hipster daughter of a Colombian father and a mother descended from Russian Jewish immigrants. Tury was a skinny geek three years out of Cuba who had only recently given up the refuge of playing with toys to mack as a promoter for the legendary club night Fat Black Pussycat. They've been together ever since.

Sometime in the summer of 1997, the couple started road-tripping to raves in Mickey Mouse land. There they met Sam, a goofy grown-up kid decked out in clothes he made himself, having asked his parents for a sewing machine for graduation so he could make his own rave wear. By the time the couple married in November of 2000 and the would-be computer animator had moved to Fort Lauderdale the following year, the three were great friends. "We're the same people," Sam says of the trio. "We're loud and fun and jerks and nice."

Then one evening in June 2002 Sam found Mel sitting on the floor of the couple's studio, plying a needle while Tury painted. "You sew?" he exclaimed, breaking several of Tury's pencils as he bounded across the room. "Let's do something together!" The animator drew Melody a sketch of the little character he had designed to reign as "lord" over his personal Website. She stitched and stuffed the square body, long arms, and short legs in black pants, then added a straight line for a mouth and Xs for eyes. Behold Red Flyer, the first in the Friends with You line of misfit toys.

Not to be outdone, Tury, who had never sewn a stitch in his life, concocted the six-legged Poppings, the most elaborate Friend yet. As the Friends menagerie grew, the toymakers realized there must be people out there just like them who would think the dolls were awesome too. Sam points out, "Before we made dolls, we collected dolls."

"A lot of people have seen that I can create something that other people want, to [fill] the smallest, smallest niche," says Shannon Eis, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association, a trade group whose more than 300 members represent 85 percent of the U.S. toy industry. Although she is not familiar with Friends with You, Eis is aware of Ugly Dolls, the biggest commercial success in designer plush. "I think they're hysterical," she admits of the line of sad-sack working stiffs with names like Wage, Cinko, Jeero, and Tray. "Just the name itself caters to a young, funky audience."

The creators of Ugly Dolls, 32-year-old David Horvath and his 27-year-old fiancée Sun-Min Kim, care less about making dolls as art than about the art of making toys. The couple met while studying illustration at the Parsons School of Design. After graduation Kim returned to Korea and Horvath interviewed with toy giant Mattel, but the recruiters dismissed his focus-group-free designs. "They told me it's not about making happy characters; it's about marketing," he recalls. Ugly Dolls disagrees. "We're interested in making things that people love without marketing; without being told they have to buy them," says Horvath. "That's the way toys used to be made."

Ugly Dolls were born when Kim answered one of Horvath's illustrated love letters with a plush doll she sewed herself of his signature little character, Wage. The lovesick toymaker carried the doll with him everywhere. Everyone he met asked him where he bought the toy. Then he ran into Giant Robot's Eric Nakamura. In December of 2000, Giant Robot sold out the first order of twenty Wage dolls within a week. Soon other toy stores were ordering Ugly Dolls too. Back in Korea, Kim did her best to keep up with demand, sewing 1700 dolls by herself, by hand, in the first year.

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