Copyright Acknowledgment: All images of FRIENDZ N' FAMILY, ACORN FAMILY, PLAY ALONG CLUB and other Products and Images created by Mel Birnkrant are Copyright (c) BIRNKRANT KISCOM/ The OBB
When I embarked on the journey of creating "Friendz n’ Family," I did so in total secrecy, secure in the belief that my partners turned competitors had nothing viable to offer me. More importantly, I felt that they would surely shoot the concept down, or try to talk me out of it, because the dolls would have no unique feature or clever gimmickry, other than a unique look and utter honesty. In my mind, the dolls would be what dolls were always meant to be, with no need for computer chips or batteries. Furthermore, there was always the possibility that The Obb, my former partners in creativity might reveal to me that fact that they were already working on a product that was similar, too similar, and kill the project instantly. Therefore, I didn’t breathe a word to them of what I was up to, but simply disappeared for several weeks. My busy partners didn’t miss me.
Over my long lifetime, I’ve never quite been able to describe or define that exquisite moment, in which I surrender my conscious mind willingly, sometimes unknowingly, and set unfettered intuition free to guide me, and more often than not, surprise me. So, once again, I sat down with several pounds of Roma Plastilina clay, and three dowel rods set upright in three Formica covered planks of wood, before me. And, without visualizing what the dolls would look like ahead of time, either on paper, or in my mind, I simply let them speak to me, from somewhere deep inside, or maybe, far away, and guide my hands unerringly. Three hours later, they stood before me, the essence of my Friendz ‘n Family.
From the above clay images a series of plaster molds were made. Each body part, the head, the torso, hands, and feet required a two-piece mold of its own. Those for the heads were quite complex, as plaster balls had to be affixed from the inside to form the sockets that would later hold the plastic eyes. Then, liquid latex was poured into the molds, and allowed to set, just long enough to let a coat of latex form inside. Then, any excess liquid latex that remained was poured out again, leaving perfectly formed body parts behind. When they were completely dry, the molds were opened. The resulting body parts were rough, and required lots of trimming. Nonetheless, as you can see, right from the start, the eyes fit perfectly.
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Although, by design, the Friendz ‘n Family dolls did nothing special or unique, they did have several unique design features, both functional and visual. The combination of flocked molded vinyl and matching fabric, was an idea I’d been trying to peddle for years. It had previously appeared in Doggie Bag Doggies, and a line of dolls called CODs (Cuddle On Delivery). In the latter, Tyco eliminated the flock to save expense. Now, I was still trying to make it work in Friendz. The flocked vinyl and the velour fabric matched perfectly, to create the illusion that the dolls were entirely made of fabric.
Another feature that, to my knowledge, had never been done before, consisted of arms and legs that were not only jointed at the hips and shoulders, but were also bendable, making the limbs more poseable than those of any dolls before had ever been.
So, once the vinyl pieces were trimmed, the next step was to create the limbs. I undertook this task before the vinyl parts were flocked, and, therefore, could be handled easily, without messing up the delicate flocked surface. Each fabric limb was a complete unit, with a joint at the hip or shoulder and a plug at the wrist or ankle. A bendable wire of predetermined length was locked between them. Then, each limb was covered in a fabric sleeve, and stuffed. A single stitch would create the effect of elbows and knees. We see the finished pieces lined up, and waiting for the hands and feet to be flocked, then, glued in place.
Here are the carefully trimmed latex pieces, ready to be flocked. Each one is gently held in place on the end of a length of dowel rod. Next, they were transported to the cellar where I kept my makeshift flocking booth. Flocking can be very messy. These days, it is done commercially, using static electricity to make the tiny fibers stand up, straight and evenly. But I flocked these, using a primitive flocking gun that resembled an old-fashioned hand pumped bug sprayer. First, the object to be flocked must be coated with adhesive. Then, it’s placed in the spray booth, in this case, a plastic garbage bag, suspended in an upright cardboard box. Each fiber of flock flies through the air, like a tiny javelin, and lands, tip first, in the adhesive. If you do it right, the minute fibers remain upright. One must work quickly, before the adhesive dries, and rotate the object frequently, a little bit at a time.
Writing this reminds me of an embarrassing incident that has been retold repeatedly. Not everyone is familiar with the process of flocking, or for that matter, has ever heard the word. One afternoon, several years ago, while I was in the basement, Eunice entered the front door, accompanied by some visitors, who I had never met before. She called out: “Mel, where are you?” I shouted back: “I’m in cellar!” She replied, “Come upstairs, we have company.” To the shock of our new friends, I hollered back, “I can’t come now! I’M FLOCKING A PUPPY!”
The shoes were first sculpted out of clay, then, cast in latex, and painted with Liquitex acrylics. The laced shoelaces and eyelets were also sculpted. Only the bows were real. The intricate plaid patterns on the blue and pink shoes were hand painted too.
Here are the newly flocked body parts, back upstairs again. Flocking hides a multitude of sins, and helps the less than perfect latex pieces achieve an illusion of perfection.
Now came the magic moment when the dolls were assembled. This step was essentially quite easy. Each store-bought hip or shoulder joint was inserted in the body, and a black plastic washer was snapped in place, form the inside, to attach them securely, instantly. The hands and feet were glued to the arms and legs with fabric adhesive. At this stage, the heads were simply balanced on their necks, just sitting there, waiting for hair.
Looking at these photographs, now, seventeen years later, a curious observation occurs to me. The dolls, which I was attempting to make so attractive, were actually quite ugly. Yet, at the time, I saw them as compelling. Now, I realize that all the while I was working on these, I was visualizing something in my mind that was not actually there: the hair! The few bits of Plastilina that I had placed on the clay models, were the only indication of hair that I had offered myself to help me visualize how the dolls would look, when the hair was finally applied. I had managed to see their invisible hair, at every step along the way, secure in the belief that when their yarn hair was in place, they would look pretty, dare I say, even beautiful, in their own semi-abstract way.
“Beautiful” has always been an elusive quality to me. While, on the other hand, “pretty” is easy. On one end of the scale, from pretty to ugly, pretty is often saccharine sweet. Hallmark cards, and, for that matter, most dolls, throughout history, have attempted to be pretty. Ugly is the opposite extreme. And somewhere between these two extremes, there is a dangerously fine dividing line. It is on this razor thin line, just a little towards the pretty side, yet perilously close to uglyness, that for yours truly, true Beauty lies.
And now, the moment had arrived. Could making the dolls hair visible, one strand of yarn at a time, carry them across the ugly-pretty line, and render them attractive, or even beautiful, and more importantly, bring them to life?
Rooting the hair proved to be work intensive. Each strand of yarn had to be knotted at one end, threaded through the narrow eye of an upholstery needle, and pierced through the latex head, from the inside. Mistakes, such as a single hole misplaced, were strictly forbidden. I could not afford the luxury of making even a single error. Every strand of the yarn hair had to be placed perfectly, and be the proper length. As usual, when I had no conscious knowledge to qualify me for a first time task, I simply turned off my head and let that mysterious force that never failed me, unconscious intuition, do it for me. Slowly but surely, one strand of yarn at a time, each doll head received a perfect head of hair.
The hair colors also denoted which dolls would be members of which family. These choices had not been made, up till this time. Now, the dolls, themselves, were ready to decide. Remember, there were no preliminary drawings, no preconceptions in my mind. I was, by choice, flying blind. That is what made projects like this so exciting for me, waiting for the dolls to tell me, waiting for them to surprise me.
While this journey was unfolding I was also figuring out the clothing. Most of the designs were the result of shopping. I haunted every gift and toy shop in the mall. At the time, there was a line of dolls that was at the point of slowly dying, called, "Beanie Kids." Even though, they were much smaller than my Friendz ‘n Family, many of their outfits fit them perfectly. I bought a bunch of dolls, just to get their clothes. To these, I added touches of embroidered decorations, fancy buttons, and brightly colored bows, to coordinate them as families. And when I couldn’t scratch around to find essential articles at the mall, such as the shoes and sandals, I fabricated them from scratch, myself.
And finally, the final touches, subtle, but effective. All the dolls are getting eyelashes. Real ones, brown ones, not easy to find ones. Most false eyelashes are black these days, as was the case in the time of Baby Face. Once again, I had to visit several cosmetic departments, and see several sales lady’s eyebrows raised, just to gather seven pairs of them. I felt that they were important; all part of my theory that, in this case, the mixture of abstract styling, combined with touches of realism, particularly in the eyes, would bring the dolls to life. One next to last step was about to take place. With the hair rooting completed, the eyelashes inserted, the eyes had to be perfectly posed, and locked in place. This was a big deal, by the way; the fact that the doll’s eyes are looking slightly to the side, and not staring doll-like straight ahead and catatonic, contributed enormously to making them look more alive. Now, the heads were ready to be permanently attached to their bodies. You might also notice that baby Suzie had her own pair of cast latex hand painted shoes that started out blue and got changed to pink.
Now, with the final addition of carefully painted eyebrows, and a subtle touch of rouge to create their delicately rosy cheeks, my Friendz ‘n Family are complete. Here they are, carefully posed, except for Bobby, who is always fidgety, and ready for their close-up. The next step is Photography.