Last week, my partners, the Kislevitz brothers, Noah, Andy, and Adam paid us a visit. In the Golden Years of our relationship, they were known as KISCOM, and later as The Obb. These days, each of them is, more or less, pursuing their own projects, and heading in diverse directions, so, seeing all three brothers together constitutes a rare occasion. Adam, for one, had just returned from India. He loved it there, in spite of an overwhelming bad odor that seemed to emanate from everything in the entire country, a stench that he spent half an hour graphically describing.
Upon arriving, they surprised me with two large envelopes. Each held a long-lost batch of artwork. The first was all the original drawings for Invasion Earth. I had given up on ever finding them, thinking they were gone forever. The second envelope contained a series of oversized illustration boards, each of which displayed four large drawings of a line of dolls that we called, “HUG ‘N HOLD.” This was a product I’d forgotten, many years ago.
Hug ‘N Hold was a doll, so basic that it might have been generic. In terms of innovation there was little about it that appeared to be unique. And yet, there was nothing quite like it on the market, nor had there ever been. This simple line of soft baby dolls was so sweet and straightforward that if it hadn’t been done already, it should have been. Its product feature was based on the creative use of Velcro.
The key drawing was quite big and dramatic. It told the essence of the line in a single image. The dolls were the very essence of simplicity, How simple were they? So simple that the sewing and the patterns were all done by yours truly. Each baby’s hands incorporated a Velcro patch that enabled it to hug and hold the other dolls, as well as a variety of soft pets and accessories, all of which, like the dolls, themselves, were made of cotton tricot.
One other subtle feature was a sculpted inner mask of vinyl that gave the faces unique form and detail. This was stitched around the inner edge and held in place by eyes, nose and mouth that were plugged or stitched in. Here, it is shown with eyes sprayed on. Tyco might have been experimenting with letting the vinyl show, rather than putting it inside. But as the samples show, inside was where it was destined to go. I sculpted the inner mask and made four copies in latex to be used on the four sample dolls I sewed. These prototypes are lost, today, but they are shown in the video you will soon see below.
On the back of the main presentation board was this product write-up. It describes the Velcro feature, but fails to mention the unique construction.
The presentation was rounded out with the following 24 drawings. It’s easy to see I got a little bit carried away; so enamored was I with the simple charm of these appealing babies.
The 24 full color drawings, above, went before the video camera, along with some demonstrative puppetry that shows the four prototypes I made in action. Perhaps the product itself was less than earthshaking, but the above elements all added up to a perfect presentation. And, as we were working with Tyco on several projects, choosing them as the first manufacturer to see the presentation was a natural choice to make. They loved Hug ‘N Play, and quickly said: “We’ll take it!”
In a project like this, being one of such simplicity, nuancing and detail is everything. And when the project was out of our control, and handed over to some of the minor talents in Tyco’s design department, they blew it. The effort was an honest one, but haunted by the specter of mediocrity. The color spectrum was insipid. The clothes were cheap and cheesy. And they couldn’t decide what to call the dolls. In the end, they opted for referring to them as “kids,” rather than babies, influenced, no doubt, by Cabbage Patch. All these subtleties were demeaning. Small things, like choosing a boy to represent the logo. Any doll maker with a modicum of merchandising savvy in 1993, would know that was a no no. Saying this today, no doubt, makes me appear to be a sexist, but back when these dolls were made, the fact that girls preferred girl dolls to boy dolls, by ten to one was common knowledge.
At any rate, for whatever reason, the dolls did not survive Toy Fair. When all was said and done, Tyco gave us a small odd box of arbitrarily chosen samples with some of the flimsy outfits they were working on, sorted into plastic bags. There were also five photos. These were record shots meant to show some of the various outfits and accessories, with which some of the dolls would come packaged.
They also gave us one prototype doll in a mocked up comp box, with ugly color, produced by a Xerox copier, and two more prototype dolls. The lavender one must have been experimental. There were also a couple of strange looking pets. I’m glad I didn’t have to design these.
In the bottom of the box, I found this final letter from Andy. He wrote this in 1994 when he sent these samples to me, suggesting that they would be safer in my keeping, and proclaiming that we would be revisiting these again. We never did! He closes with a final line that sort of sums up our entire adventure in toy inventing, a simple sentence that tells what it was like: “Our originals were much better!”
HUG 'N HOLD are TM and Copyright BIRNKRANT, KISCOM. Photos and Text are Copyright Mel Birnkrant
And, last of all: Here they are, the Hug N’ Hold dolls at Toy Fair 1994. This was their Finest Hour, the Magic Moment when they reached for a star.
The dolls appeared in Tyco’s 1994 Catalogue, where they were advertised as “A toddler’s special friend.” The Hug ‘n Hold Kids came so close to happening! This was the story of my career in toy inventing, time and time again.