We trekked out to the desert to meet the queen of the rainbow unicorns and magical bears. And yes, she is a real person!
So for people who've been living under a rock since the early '80s, or who have-god forbid-an aversion to cute things, could you give us a quick rundown of what Lisa Frank is all about?
The world of Lisa Frank is about a little bit of fashion, whimsy, all color. We stretch reality a little bit. Maybe a lot, depending on whose view it is! We try to just really inspire creativity in kids and adults.
I imagine your characters are like your kids, and you love them all, but do you have favorites?
Well, my two favorite characters are Hunter and Forrest, who are based off my kids! Forrest is based on my 13-year-old, and Hunter is a 17-year-old character who was named the day Hunter was born. We had created both characters before the boys were born, and then when they were born, we thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they really do fit their personalities!'
Who were some of your first characters?
I think Markie, our unicorn, was one of our very first characters, and that was named after a friend of ours who died super-young of a heart attack.
We have characters that are 30 years old—Bunny Ballerina, Hollywood Bear—then we have characters under five-years-old, like Tikanni the dog. Casey and Caymus are based off of my first golden retrievers, so they're both gone but they were developed maybe 20 years ago. I could go on…
Do you usually name your characters after real people?
We do, we actually really try to base our characters off of people who are in our lives or who have been in our lives, and sometimes it's in memory. We ask people first.
Has anyone ever said no?
No. Are you kidding? [Laughs] People are actually begging us ‘Can you do a character with my name?'
Which character is the most like you?
I would say there is probably a little bit of me in each character. But Purrscilla is a lot like me, because she is very into glam and glitz and jewelry and everything very girly. And some of the jewelry in the illustration is even my own jewelry. But I'm not a cat fan—that's the only thing! I'm a dog person. But she is a really glamorous kitty. Not that I am saying that I am glamorous, but the stuff that she likes, I like too.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I think I first wanted to be blonde, and I wasn't. So had to get over that quickly. I think I always wanted to be an artist. I sort of just followed my passion right out of high school, and everything kind of evolved for me.
I pretty much knew when I graduated from college that I was going to have this business, because I had already started it when I was in college. I didn't have to go and look for a job.
How did you first become interested in art?
Both of my folks were into art. My dad was an art collector, my mom had a little kiln in our basement and we would make pottery. I think from about age five on, they sent me to art classes, and I was a huge colorer. HUGE. I think to keep me quiet, they would bring the coloring books and crayons, and I would fill up the books.
I was totally a girly girl. I was not a jock. When I was 12, my parents got me a loom, so I was a weaver. I loved to read, I loved to do artwork, I loved to do anything girly.
So how did you end up starting your own business when you were still in college?
I went to a really good high-school in Michigan, and got into good colleges and was accepted at prestigious art schools, and then when I told my parents I was going to go to the University of Arizona, my dad said 'That's fine, but you're going to support yourself.' And I said ok, and I am sure that if I failed, he would have been there for me, but it was a sort of a tough love situation.
In my senior year of high school, I was a painter and I had an art show and I sold all of my paintings, including one to Lee Iacocca, who was at the time president of Ford (This tells everyone how old I am! You can look it up, I'm old!). And so at the time, I had a lot of money from the art show, and so I think my dad knew that I was going to be ok.
So when I came out to Arizona, I met people who would go out to the Native American communites, and I would go out and I would trade for art or jewelry, or I would buy it, and I would go back to Michigan, where I was from, or I would go to California, and I would sell what I had bought. So I was really working through college, and then one day, I met a guy who said, “Anything you draw I can have made,” so we started making things from my ideas. I also represented other people and sold their artwork, and then we realized that I was the one with the commercial sense, because if I said ‘Make a teddy bear or a unicorn,' that was what sold.
I also had a little company called Sticky Fingers, and it was jewelry all made up of plastic that I glued together with a glue gun. And it really sold well—and interestingly enough, I sold to Urban, 20 years ago! And since my customers knew me as Lisa Frank, I went back to using my name instead of Sticky Fingers.
How did you make your paintings and illustrations?
In the beginning, computers weren't where they are today, so we used acrylic paint, a board and airbrush to paint everything. The beginning designs were very simplistic. The very first thing we made before stickers were buttons, and since they were so small, we did the artwork very small too. I would say those pieces of art are like one tiny element in a Lisa Frank illustration today.
One of the first designs you did was a gumball machine. What's the story behind that?
The gumball machine comes from when I was little. My dad gave me an antique gumball machine, so that was my original logo—the gumball. And also, you know how when your friends find out you're into something, they start sending it to you? So I probably have a huge collection of gumballs somewhere.
Have you ever had any crazy fans who tried to run away to the world of Lisa Frank?
I did a meet and greet I think 15 years ago at FAO Schwartz, and they were blown away. Kids came from as far away as Texas, and it took over city blocks. And they were so upset because it was the day after Thanksgiving and no one could get in the store. But that was crazy with love, not sick crazy.
There are a few things here and there that are a little obsessive that we have wondered over the years, but I think our world of Lisa Frank is so loving that our fans are really so loving. We really haven't had a lot of negative, bad things happen.
What is the best thing about being Lisa Frank?
I think probably the best thing about being Lisa Frank is being able to make kids happy. We have been able to help sick children, and what we have done with Make-A-Wish. There is one girl who is now in her early thirties, and every year, up until just a couple of years ago, I would get a card from her mom and her grandmother who swore she was alive because of the letters and things that we sent her when she was struggling with cancer.
Going through your library, it seems like you guys have made thousands of products!
I think we made so many products because I get bored easily. So as soon as we would master a category, I would want to do a different category. I'm trying to think what we HAVEN'T done. There is hardly something we haven't really done.
What would be your dream product to make?
If I could do anything, I think a theme park. Because the world of Lisa Frank really is a world. And I think before I die, we should have that world someplace, not just on paper. I think that would be pretty awesome.
I really think the sky is the limit. And now an actress has that craft show. Hello! I should have had that craft show! I would like to do something with fashion. I think Project Runway should do a design show for kids and let me be a judge. And Cupcake Wars, I think we should do something with that, because the girls designing the cupcakes I'm sure they were my fans, and I am sure they would get a kick out of it.
We are working on doing a coffee table book with the original art. I would like to see the original art in a museum show. I would like to do a collaboration with a high-end fashion designer because I love fashion. Do you want me to go on? It's endless!
Do you still make art for yourself?
I still design for myself. I will have furniture and things made. Like, these shoes didn't exist. The shoe did, but I took them to the shoemaker and designed a new heel for them. But do I paint anymore? I don't really have time.
So is it true that you have special, patented Lisa Frank colors?
We have a proprietary ink formula that I developed really early on so that everything would be brighter. And now our licensees have to sign a confidentiality agreement. It's typical of a four-color process, but we use a special mixture to make those colors. It's a SECRET.
You've never really sold your vintage stuff before. What made you decide to do it now?
A huge part of our fanbase is the Urban shopper, because they grew up with Lisa Frank. Over the years, I always tried to save 10 of everything and put it in our library, but we never saved it to sell. So some of it, it was really hard for me to say yes to because we just have so little of it left. I don't want it for the material value of it—I want it for the nostalgic value of it. So it was hard for us to say yes to selling it, but I also think on the other hand, it's exciting for us. People are asking us daily ‘Please make this again! Do this again!' And we listen! We listen to our adult fans, we listen to our kid fans! Because if you don't listen, you're just stupid!
Ok, now what people really want to know: Do unicorns exist?
Well, in my world they do. So the answer is absolutely yes.