Revenge of the Misfit Toys
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.
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.
Early in September 2002, Malfi showed up at the Berlin offices of Die Gestalten Verlag (DGV), the graphic design publishing house that in 2000 released Pictoplasma, a groundbreaking book of contemporary character design featuring cutting-edge logos, cartoons, icons, puppets, and dolls. Friends with You happened to send a package of samples just as the DGV staff was collecting stuff in preparation for the debut issue of Übersee -- a magazine also dedicated to today's character design. Since then the Malfi doll, X-eyed and grim, has presided over the DGV conference room. In an e-mail to New Times, DGV publisher and editor-in-chief Robert Klanten reports, "You might say that it supervises our meetings."
Pictoplasma editor Peter Thaler includes Friends with You in the recently released followup, Pictoplasma 2. Friends, writes Klanten, "are a good example of next generation plush toys in that their designs play with the aesthetic of what 'monsters' should and could be." For the German publisher, new-generation plush is subversive stuff: "Disney-like aesthetics are replaced by the bizarre. High tech by high touch."
When today's designers were kids, notes Klanten, they spent more time with illustrated characters on television and in video games than with their parents, teachers, or friends in the "real" world. They don't want to give up those relationships just because they've supposedly grown up. Instead there is what Klanten calls a "Peter Pan effect," as the artists react against a culture obsessed with looking, but not acting, young. The people who buy these bizarro toys, like the designers who make them, want to tear down the screens between themselves and their friends on television and the Web.
By all accounts, the prime mover of the plush underground is New York-based artist Mumbleboy, a.k.a. Kinya Hanada, a 34-year-old Japanese American who began selling handmade Mumble Dolls out of his apartment in 1996. From Manhattan the artist tells New Times that he started making the dolls as early as 1992 or 1993 because he wanted a break from painting while a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. With oversized bulges for heads and pointy arms and legs, the Mumble Dolls look like aliens escaped from one of Mumbleboy's computer animated movies, where flat, futuristic figures constantly shape-shift to throbbing electronic music, like characters in a video game gone insane. Mumble Dolls can be found wherever freaky grown-up toys are sold. Last Christmas animated versions of the little guys sprouted wings for a holiday light show sponsored by the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority and, the artist mumbles, "kind of flew around on the ceiling" of Grand Central Station.
While in Europe last April, Mumbleboy dropped in on the DGV offices and stumbled upon Malfi. He snapped a picture in the conference room, then Photoshopped the doll into a photograph of the city, hovering over the buildings Godzilla-style. He posted the collage on mumbleboy.com with the title "Malfi vs. Berlin."
"You guys are on the Mumbleboy site!" an ecstatic friend e-mailed Sam.
"No way," Sam gushed. "He's the best!"
"Man, how'd you see Malfi attacking Berlin?" Sam e-mailed Mumbleboy. "I'm glad you caught him."
By sending out quirky e-mails, Friends get to know pretty much everybody else making indie plush in the Americas. "It's a very small community," observes Chad Phillips, the 30-year-old buyer for Kid Robot, a San Francisco store and Internet site that carries roughly 800 Asian and Asian-inspired art toys. "The people we deal with in America all pretty much know each other."
"I notice all of the people who make the plushes are really nice people," adds Eric Nakamura, founding editor of the hip Asian culture magazine Giant Robot and co-owner of the Internet retail site and two Los Angeles boutiques, also called Giant Robot. Nakamura says that in the more established world of vinyl art toys, dominated by Asian designers like Hong Kong's Michael Lau and Eric So and the Japanese team Medicom, he sees much more jealousy and infighting. "I don't know if that's because they're making cute stuff, but I don't see people being negative in the plush world."
In 1999, when Mumble Dolls were beginning to appear on the new art toy sites and selling along with CDs at a few underground electronic music outlets, another pair of computer animators/toymakers in their twenties, Alisa McRonald and Keith Knittel of the duo Dynamo, opened their store in Manhattan called Dynamo-Ville. The sweet, nearly shapeless pastel critters of Dynamo-ville couldn't look more different from Mumbleboy's aliens or Friends' freaks; and at a retail price upward of $100, these are not toys for the casually cool. Yet in an interview over the phone from the couple's current home in Los Angeles, where they are now part-owners of the art toy-friendly Millicent Gallery, Knittel says he finds "common ground" among the plush pushers in their "love for art that's comforting and interactive."
Dynamo struggles to have its dolls recognized as art, but the confusion of art with commerce in toymaking is what excites Argentine animator/toymaker Julian Gatto. An Internet pal of Friends with You, Gatto designs super-cute characters and dolls that look like they were made by and for babies -- except they are so blissful, flat, and simple they seem somehow twisted. "When something that is generally seen as a commercial product is put in another context," Gatto e-mails from Buenos Aires, "it opens a whole spectrum of experimental possibilities."
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."
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.
Now the couple's toy company, Pretty Ugly, employs ten people to distribute the dolls from a warehouse in New Jersey and runs a factory in mainland China, where a couple dozen seamstresses continue to sew Ugly Dolls by hand under Kim's careful supervision. "When we say the dolls are made in China, it's not a mass-production assembly line," Horvath insists. It's about making the dolls cheaply, the same reason 70 percent of all dolls sold in the United States are manufactured in China. "Consumers in this country have a cost-value in mind," explains the Toy Industry's Eis. "Were the toys made here they would cost much more than parents would be able to afford."
With no factory connections in Asia and no interest in sewing their own fingers to the bone, the Friends with You trio recruited local immigrant labor by taking out an ad in El Nuevo Herald: Looking for a seamstress with experience making plush. The trio had no idea how to screen a seamstress. And the would-be seamstresses were bewildered by the dolls. "Some of them thought we were making them for retarded children," Sam laughs. Although every applicant claimed to be an expert, most of the samples they produced turned out to be even freakier than the Friends' prototypes. The trio paid the first woman who came to the door $60 to replicate a simple character that Sam designed, a round ball with flaps for eyes. Instead of a sphere, the woman returned with a flat wheel -- with no flaps. Another aspirant, who couldn't actually sew, put her doll together with glue. Fascinated, Sam held on to the rejects. "I like to collect them," he says. Finally, one afternoon in August 2002, Golden Eyes and her mother knocked on the door. Before Yamile Villalobos moved to Miami from Chile three years ago, she and her mother used to pick up extra work during the holiday season sewing costumes and stuffed animals. When her mother insisted on making herself useful while visiting her daughter up north, Villalobos circled the ad for doll makers. "We could see the inspiration in their eyes," Melody recalls. "We thought, all right, you're true ones."
Perched on the silver mesh chairs in Mel and Tury's living room, Golden Eyes and her mother smiled politely when shown the dolls and nodded seriously when given instructions. Yet Villalobos couldn't help looking around for a hidden camera, expecting to find herself the butt of some TV show prank. When the meeting ended, mother and daughter stared at each other on the front porch. "How strange!" the seamstress's mother remarked. "Who would ever buy these dolls?"
Although dubious at first, Golden Eyes converted the garage of her comfortable Kendall home into a workshop. On a Sunday afternoon in July, the seamstress stops at a long cutting table across from the sewing machines to straighten a pile of pink vinyl arms that she will use to sew a special "naked" Malfi. "You end up feeling affection for the dolls," she says, carrying a mini Mr. TTT with her to the living room couch. "This little paw is made by hand," she points out. "It's not like making a pillow. You have to give life to the doll." But as seriously as Golden Eyes takes her work, she knows that people buy the dolls precisely because they look so weird. "I understand now," she explains. "It's not the dolls themselves; it's the design."
It seemed like all hands were on naked Malfi at Comic-Con International, the annual comic book and "popular arts" convention held in San Diego last July. Even though Strangeco, the art toy purveyor that commissioned this special edition of the doll, advertised Malfi as "the most feared and omnipotent plush toy" in the Friends with You line, the comic book geeks, Stormtrooper freaks, and Sailor Moon wannabes who stopped at the Strangeco booth at Comic-Con couldn't seem to keep from giving the pink version of the otherwise intimidating doll a hug.
Without a booth of their own, the Friends crew stalked the San Diego Convention Center dragging an enormous army surplus duffel bag stuffed with minis, stickers, and hand-stitched catalogues. "We were like a walking booth," quips Mel. Except that for the inexperienced hype-artists, the first day of Comic-Con turned out to be a promotional disaster. "We'd all talk at the same time and confuse people," Mel recalls. She said, "minis." Sam said, "albino squid." Tury stuttered something unintelligible. Caught in the melee, a guy wearing Yoda ears shook his head and said, "I don't understand." Another guy, hawking Simpsons dolls, gawked at the mini shoved into his hand and asked, "What do I do with this?"
But the trio quickly got their act together, coordinating a plan of attack after a big fight the first night. Now there was no stopping the Friends. "Like we were fucking monsters," says Melody of the last two days of Comic-Con. "We'd say to everyone who even looked at us twice: 'We have stickers. We have samples.' By the third day, everyone said, 'Oh, Friends with You.'" Smiling, Sam adds, "We hustled like we were from Miami."
While his associates relive Comic-Con glory, Tury concentrates on a new design in his sketchbook. "We're constantly concepting the next stuff," says Sam. Friends has been selected to make an animated promo for Nike. There is a stuffed bear under discussion as a promotion for a major cigar maker. Then there's the possibility of partnering with a more established company to produce a vinyl toy line. How about hiring Golden Eyes' cousins in Chile to carve wooden toys? Or making something practical, like Friends with You purses? "We make something that only special people buy," Sam observes, squinting his eyes, knowing he's headed for trouble before he even finishes his thought. "Now we're trying to figure out how to make something for people who aren't ... so ... special."
Four months ago when David Choe walked into the San Francisco indie toy store Kid Robot, Malfi was sitting on a shelf with his arms crossed like a badass. The San Jose-based painter is pretty badass himself, what with the sex-meets-machine themes of his paintings and the sassy messages that spout from the mouth of the graffiti whale he draws on buildings and freeway walls up and down the West Coast. Choe is not a plush guy; he doesn't even say "plush." He says "stuffed animal"; and he stays away. But something about Malfi got to him.
"It just hit me: I need to buy this," Choe relays over the phone. "If these guys can get someone like me to buy something like that, they're ready to take over the world. Their stuff is cute, but it's beyond cute. It's like next-level stuff."
Choe e-mailed Friends with You when he brought the doll home: "Hey suckers, I bought one of your Malfis. I hope he doesn't beat me up."
Sam e-mailed back: "Oh, Malfi's going to kill you. He will bring great wealth or death. Watch out while you're sleeping."
Not taking any chances, Choe left Malfi inside his plastic seal. The artist kept e-mailing Friends, though. He painted a self-portrait of himself as Malfi, wearing an argyle sweater and a watch. Eventually Choe invited the trio to collaborate with him for a show at San Francisco's 111 Mina Gallery on October 2. The crew attacked the project full throttle like they do every other endeavor: concepting madly, sketching designs on paper and skin, calling in Golden Eyes, sealing everything in plastic, and shipping it out. When they showed up at Choe's house, they convinced him to liberate Malfi from the plastic seal. "He knows you're a good guy now," Sam reassured him. "You'll be safe." Choe cut up a pair of argyle socks to make the doll a sweater.
When the "Treasure Whale" show opens in San Fran, a plush mammal as big as Melody's mini Cooper rests on a baby-blue wooden cart, intestines and guts and white baby whales spilling out across the floor from the massive toy's belly. Pulling a rope attached to the cart is a wedge of a wizard with a pointy head and a sly smile. In an enormous Choe mural behind the Friends installation, a hooded vixen with a baby-doll face pulls a cart holding a whale that has been sliced down the middle to reveal innards like the pulp of an orange. A soundtrack recorded by Sam plays the songs of whales making love and the screams of a whale getting butchered. A steady stream of hipsters flows through the Mina gallery from 5:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. A jazz drum ensemble jams in an adjacent room. A dozen DJs take turns scratching at a bank of turntables. The crowd gets more and more rowdy as the free-drink tickets take effect.
Patrons who purchase the white baby whales ask the artists to sign them. Choe and Friends comply, scrawling their messy drawings across the soft baby whale skin. "It felt really strange, people knowing who we are," Mel remarks. "Oh, Friends with You, I love your stuff."
At the end of the night, screams break out near the whale installation. The crowd forms a circle to watch a drunken filmmaker friend of Choe's grind with an equally inebriated young woman in the middle of the pool of baby whales and whale guts. Mounting the rope between the whale and the wizard, the chick starts riding like a rodeo cowboy. The filmmaker flays around her until, worn out, he hurls himself at the treasure whale. The artists watch in horror mixed with delight. Just when it seems the freak will destroy the installation, he lands gingerly. Catching his breath, he leans against the whale. No computer screen, no plastic, no art gallery pretension comes between the freak and the mammoth plush.
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