An Interview with Shawn Smith and Jen Brody
By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 15, 2009 5:20PM
Less than a decade ago, Shawn Smith was an art student sitting in his dorm room at Illinois State, making one-of-a-kind plush toys that he hoped someone might buy. Simple and unpretentious, Smith's designs won over a growing number of people, and he was able to turn his hobby into a full-fledged business. Today, Shawn and his wife, Jen Brody, own and operate Shawnimals: a character design studio, located at Damen and W. Carroll, that serves as the home address for Dracskulla, Chub Grub, Lazy Flopito, and more than 450 other characters who come from more than 20 different "countries" or lands. Cat Gremlands, Foodlandia, and the Grungle Jungle are just a few of the exotic places where Shawnimals roam; the Internet and stores like Rotofugi are others.
Yesterday Shawnimals launched Moustachio Madness -- a limited edition, handmade "blindbag" (meaning, "what you'll get is a surprise") series featuring 10 designs. The Madness is a prelude to the release of even more mustache products coming up on Nov. 18. A subscription series (think commemorative plates) of limited-edition ninjas is to come in December, just in time for Ninja-mas.
Recently we paid a visit to Shawnimal HQ to ask Smith and Brody some questions.
Chicagoist: Tell us about Shawnimal's beginnings and culture. Where do your ideas come from?
Jen Brody: I think most of the ideas come from inside jokes, pop culture, everyday objects, and things we like.
Shawn Smith: We like to take something ordinary and make it interesting without it being too saccharin.
JB: Before we became a full-fledged business, Shawn made one-of-a-kind toys, based on his sketches. It's just his personality to automatically give things a personality. He's always had funny names for things, and funny sayings.
SS: In college, I came up with 12 characters. People would email me, pay for their toys, and I'd send them out. I was doing that for a few years. The characters would come and go. Then we realized we loved making these toys — especially by hand. As we went along, we slowly made up the stories and the different countries where different Shawnimals came from: Ninjatown, Hotdog Kingdom, the Lumplands.
JB: Things gradually took off. We got some big press on DailyCandy in December 2002, when they were only blogging about LA and New York. When the post about us went online, Shawn woke up with 400 emails in his inbox from people who wanted to buy toys, or do public relations for us, or do business with him. It was cool to see. In 2003 we moved to Chicago from ISU (in Normal) -- it was the perfect opportunity for us to take a chance and turn it into a full-time business.
SS: It wasn't very cut-and-dried. After a couple of years, I think in 2005, was when we decided to start doing this full-time. From 2003 to 2005 we got nice bits of press -- we were included in Entertainment Weekly, and did some custom ninjas for Lupe Fiasco -- he even name-dropped us in a song, and put a picture of the Wee Ninjas on the cover of [Food & Liquor, his 2006 record]. As we made that transition, we took a chance, and came up with a plan to get us through the next few years and keep the work creatively engaging while developing it more like a product line. We're very pleased with where we are now.
C: And you made a popular video game as well.
SS: Yes, in 2006 Southpeak made Ninjatown, which opened up tons of doors for us. It provided us with an opportunity for us to take things to the next level. Now we had all this exposure, and were able to communicate to all of these new audiences. It opened up people's eyes to Shawnimals at large.
C: Have you ever thought about doing a cartoon?
SS: We've been approached a few times. At first, it wasn't the right time. When you're dealing with cartoons, you've got bigger teams to work with, and more money involved, and higher stakes. Now I think it's something we could talk about. But we're in no hurry.
C: What do you think the cartoon would be like?
SS: Well, we don't want overt violence -- it's not something we're into ourselves. There are some bad guys -- the Devil Demon, for example — whose irreverence would come through. But it's mainly all of these adorable characters.
JB: I think our style is cute but not completely innocent -- it's humor that adults can understand.
SS: One logistical issue we'd have to deal with is that the characters have never talked. Should they talk?
JB: With the toys, you can't really see their mouths!
C: Maybe they can just make beeps or other noises. Which raises a point about the Shawnimals' appearance -- they're very simple.
SS: Our aesthetic is "the simpler, the better." A lot of things, and toys, are over-designed. Sometimes we try out stuff and it seems to be over-designed for our aesthetic -- adding a nose can be too much. Our concepts are also simple -- the mustache with a mustache, for example. They're cute but not sickeningly cute, weird but not so weird that you can't understand it. The mustaches are an even better example of our aesthetic than the ninjas, actually.
C: How have you been weathering the recession?
JB: It's been slower year than last year for us, but I think in a lot of ways we haven't been hit as hard as we could be. We're small enough to be able to make changes quickly and adapt if we have to.
SS: Most of the time we can predict how sales will be, but now it's up and down. It's not like it's a little, either -- it's more like a 20 percent difference from one month to the next.
C: Was it easier to maintain the fun element of your work back in the olden days?
JB: A fair amount has stayed the same, but the stress amount has grown. There's going to be a point where we will have to adopt a more traditional business model, with a CEO to handle the business for us. But they need to "get" it. It will be a scary jump, but a welcome one. We're lucky to have a lot of people we work with and trust.
SS: There are people who just don't get it and don't care, and people who think they get it but don't. The latter are more dangerous. When someone "gets" it, it's very clear.
C: Do people ever come to you and say, "hey, I drew this thing, let's collaborate?"
SS: Sometimes we'll get emails saying, "here's a plush you should make." We're not a traditional design outfit, so most of what we work on is completely our own stuff. Over the years we have collaborated with others, but more recently it's become harder to get around to doing that. We have a plushform — a customizable toy that is blank, that you can art up. That gives us a way to provide a canvas for artists to showcase whatever they want it to be.
C: With so many people crafting and Etsy-ing these days, have you had troubles with people copying your designs?
SS: You see things that are obviously derivative. The perception is that we're a lot bigger than we are, because of our press. If someone says, "they're big enough to take the hit," well, we're not. We don't want to be the big guy with the cease and desist letters, but how do you deal with it? Usually we send an email. Some people get really defensive. But in the end, most people who make plush toys are more about the community than ripping anyone off.