Interview with Holly Keller of Chez Beeper Bebe

>> Monday, February 22, 2010

Here at Gratz Industries we've decided to start interviewing some of the amazing creative people whom we've previously only stalked admired from afar. And I'm so thrilled that Holly Keller of Beeper Bebe has agreed to be my first interviewee! So let's get down to it, shall we?

Where do you find your inspiration?
My primary sources of inspiration are vintage toys, nature, fine artists (love Miro, Caulder, and Girard), and my biggest influence is, perhaps, the creative interests of my son.

For a couple of years now he has been coloring everything using every crayon in the box, nothing reflects reality—everything is rainbow-hued in his world (I like to describe it as coloring like a rainbow threw-up on it)—and this has definitely inspired my recent design aesthetic—the color wheel-like effect you see in my Rainbow Sunshine Plushie, as well as My Counting Bean Bags and fabrics I chose for those.

How do you balance your making with your family?
I forgo a whole lot of sleep. But aside from that, I have the great fortune of being married to someone who wholly supports what I do and does more than his share around our home so I can have time to design and support my little business. I did recently move to a part-time schedule at work too—cut back from full time to a 3-day work schedule—so I now have more time I can devote to the Beeper Bebe space, as well as to my son. And I have to admit, that has been the most glorious change in my world—I could break into a triumphant song and dance just talking about that change. I mean, Virginia Woolf talks about the need to have a room of one’s own, but you also need to have the dedicated time of one’s own—especially as a mother. While I did plenty of work on Beeper Bebe prior to going part-time, I always felt guilty for it and like I was short-changing everyone in my family (including me). But now that I have this dedicated time every week that is just for me to create—time that was freed up with the explicit intent of allowing me more time to devote to Beeper Bebe, well, I am liberated from my guilt for those hours. And that alone has been inspiring—not to mention crazy-happy–making for me personally.

Can we peek into your work space? Show us where the magic happens!My work space is a work in progress.

I actually did some significant re-organization on it last year, and now want to redo the whole color and feel of the little space I have—make it lighter, less crowded with supplies, more unity in its feel. The space I have is a what I suppose was intended to be a small bedroom in our 1920’s era home—so it is upstairs—but the best feature is the little balcony off the room—so I have my own door I can open to the outdoors when I am in there during any time other than winter (which is 1/3 of the year in Minnesota, but no matter…).

There are trees just outside, so during the summer I can hear the birds singing, smell the lilacs when they are in bloom below, sometimes I get squirrels on the balcony chattering away, or I can listen to the happy laughter of my husband and my son playing outside in the back yard.

I love that you list vintage Fisher Price Little People as one of your loves. I love them too! Have they ever directly influenced your work?
I have given my son several vintage Little People sets as gifts (you know, the sort of gift that is for him, but is really for you). I just find the 70’s era design from Fisher Price to be so damn cool. It was really plugged into the American Dream of the time—the A-Frame House, the jeep with the pop-up camper, the airport. They were mini-versions of the 70’s era family-dream. I don’t feel like any big toy maker is well tapped into today’s American dream. I mean, there are some toy makers who have some lovely, modern designs, but no big mainstream makers are doing anything really modern that is also affordable, like the stuff Fisher Price made. I wish Fisher Price would hire me to redesign their Little People for today. And I suppose there is part of me that wants to design my own Beeper Bebe version of that…watch this space?

What about other vintage toys? What were your favorite toys as a child? Do you still have them? Does your son have a favorite toy?
Aside from my own Little People, my other favorite toys as a child were the dolls and plushies my mum made for me, and anything that was an art supply. I loved to create and draw my own monsters when I was little. I actually grew up in poverty, so I did not have a lot of toys when I was little, really. But I cannot say I was ever bored because I lived so much in my imagination. Dime store trinkets were very loved by me—something I got for a nickel out of a gumball machining was as a good as something more substantial from a store—and I do still love little trinket-y toys to this day. And yes, I do still have some of my toys—certainly, all the dolls and plushies my mum made for me, and a few other things in an old toy chest. I also have a few toys that belonged to my grandma as a child, and a doll that was my dad’s. As for Beeper, my son, well his favorite toys, hands down, are his super hero figures, and his HUNDREDS of little plastic animals that he likes to sort by reptile, mammal, amphibian, sea creature, or whatever new category he creates. We pick up the little plastic animals at the thrift store—they seem to self-proliferate there. Personally, I love to buy him beautifully designed European toys, stuff that will endure—like the Shapemaker set from Miller Goodman or AutomoBlox - but he still plays with the plastic-y toys the most.

I'm completely in love with the Beeper Bebe in a Box. The details are just wonderful. Can you tell me how that evolved?

This is kind of a funny and sad story. I had this little doll when I was about 6 that is called a Pee Wee doll—it is about 4 inches tall and had its own little clothing. It was cheap and probably came from the local dime store but I loved that little doll. I kept her in a little plastic zip pouch, along with some other little trinkets that I guess were my accessories for her—so it was like a little play set of my own assembly. Anyway, one day while I was waiting for the school bus, for some reason I do not recall, another little girl got mad at me and punched me so hard in the stomach it literally knocked the wind from me and I fell down (I probably said something smart-alecky to her). Anyway, I must have dropped my Pee Wee doll because it was forever lost after that—and I was devastated. I never forgot that little doll and her pouch of stuff—and I think the Bitty Bebe is my version of it now. I have since made a little Bitty Birdie version of it—which people are way more nuts about—but I, personally, still love the little doll version best.

What's your favorite thing you've ever made?
I love my Kindie Garden Plush dolls that are designed after a drawing I made in kindergarten.

I also loved my little Chicken Coco doll I made—it was this little chicken made from a recycled tweed suit coat, with a little dress and matching pillbox hat with feathers.

I do love chickens—especially ones with style.

Is there something you made that you would love to sell but it would cost a fortune? Like a $600 teddy bear?
I have always had this idea about making a nature-inspired doll, with nature inspired wardrobe—things like a kilt that looks like it is made from leaves, a simple dress made from vintage linen that would have teeny wildflowers and herbs embroidered on it, and bear-like fur wrap she could wear around her. I think I will make it at some point—but with the amount of labor that will go into it, who knows what it would need to be priced at…

What inspired you to add drawings to your product photography - like the stem on the new Rainbow Sunshine Plushie? And the backgrounds for the Kindie-Garden dolls?
Really, it was just an inspired moment that occurred in the middle of photographing the first set of Kindie Garden plush dolls I ever made. I mean, they are made from childhood drawings, so it seemed natural to incorporate child-like drawings as background to their photos.

What are your favorite materials to work with?
Recycled, reclaimed, thrifted. Still. There is no better inspiration than just finding something spontaneously at the thrift store that you know could be redesigned into something else entirely. I love old wool tweed suit coats in particular, but I also thrift and use wool sweaters (that I later felt), cashmere sweaters, towels, sheets, fleece and vintage sewing notions.

I recently began collecting stripey cotton tees and I am still not sure exactly what I am going to do with them, but I know there is a plushie in there somewhere. Of course, I also feel good about the fact that I am making something new from something already out there—using what is available rather than buying more.

Can you tell us about your day job?
I do have a day job—the one I am now working part-time at. My day job is completely disparate from what I do with Beeper Bebe. I work for one of those ginormous companies with businesses in almost every country in the world—I am an organizational development consultant for them. What this means is that I advise leaders on how to more effectively run their businesses so they are better aligned, their employees will be more engaged, and they will ultimately deliver better business results. I recognize how weirdly different it is. And honestly, I sometimes cannot believe that any of these big shots in suits listen to me—often inside I feel like, Really? You want to pay attention to what I have to say? Because I am just a girl who likes to make toys and drink whiskey—what do I really know about how you should execute your strategy? But I do get to travel the world for my job, and tell men in suits what to do, so there is no denying that it is intellectually interesting work

What are your goals for Beeper Bebe? Are you trying to grow your business? What steps are you taking to make your goals a reality?
Sure, I work deliberately to build Beeper Bebe. Mostly because I want to be able to afford to spend more time making and designing stuff. I mean, I would love to do nothing but design toys and projects for kids all day long. It is what I am most passionate about. I do use my blog as an instrument to engage people who like my work, and to broaden that group—but at the end of the day, I blog because I love to create and it is a way to journal that process—what I am making, how I am making it, and what is inspiring to me. And it is so, so good to connect with a community of people who appreciate this sort of thing—because I think most of my friends could give a rip that I designed an itty bitty chicken plushie.
That said, my biggest thing I have done to date to make my goals a reality was to cut back to part time at my day job—which meant some serious and intense and emotional negotiations with my manager and company, and also meant we had to scale back our lifestyle to accommodate 40% less income from me. 40% less income though in exchange for what feels like 100% more life seems well worth the exchange. You just cannot beat all that unfettered time to plan, design, create and to do things like spend the morning with your son’s kindergarten class—now that is inspiring.

Who are your favorite makers?
Here are a few:

And everything Sarah of The Small Object makes has my adoration

My new favorite blog is Made by Joel. Could he be more brilliant? Maybe Fisher Price should hire him to redesign the Little People because he would do a bang-up job.

I am also inspired by the Habit blog - the photography is lovely and real and I find the text so authentic and poignant.

What are your favorite children's books? Either your favorites as a child or your current favorites to read with your child - or both.
We all love books at our house—there are stacks and shelves of them all over. I think they are the source for so much imagination—the jumping off point for creative play and your own artistic creations. My favorite books as a child were One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr Seuss—because all the creatures in that book were so cool. I wanted them all as pets.

We do have loads of children’s books—and I definitely have my favorite authors, like Mo Willems, Leo Lionni, Eric Carle, of course. And I love the Toot and Puddle characters, as well as Charlie and Lola. Skippyjon Jones is a big favorite with Beeper—and so are the Harry Potter books. We have been reading our way through them—we are just finishing up The Order of the Phoenix. Honestly, I believe the Harry Potter books are some of the best books being written today. The characters are so well developed and have a lot of emotional complexity. Plus, I totally have a secret fantasy about being a student at Hogwarts. Seriously.

You sell patterns as well as finished items. I do that too - and I've gotten a lot of questions about why I do it. So why do YOU do it?
Well, I get a lot of inquiries on many of my designs from people who would like to make their own. At first I was of the same mind as those you mention—well, why would I do that? Over time though I have realized, making a given plushie design runs its course for me, and it becomes less inspiring and fun to make after a while…and also, making plushies is pretty labor intensive without a very high financial return for all the hours it takes to make one well.

So, while I love to make the toys, I also recognize that in order to run a business that is lucrative in any way, I need to offset my actual plushie-making with a few things that are less labor intensive—the great thing about patterns is once you put in the time to assemble it, it is DONE and then all you have to do is keep mailing out pdf’s when someone purchases one. Easy. Also, I understand the desire to make your own—and especially the desire to do it without ripping off the artist, even though I am sure you could figure out how to make some of my plushies without my pattern.

Now that I have designed a pattern, and have been doing more tutorials on my blog, well, I just really like being able to share that with others. I like that when you give someone a pattern they will modify it and make it totally their own—cool.

Any advice to other makers out there?
As Henry David Thoreau said, Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence. That is what it is all about—finding your own path, your own passion, and going on that journey with it. Do that above all other things. It is the source of true happiness, which in turn will flow to other people and areas of your life. Do what you love, people.

Thanks so much Holly! It was great getting to know you better.

Now that you've met her I know you'll want to stalk her too! You can find Holly online here. . .
blog: Chez Beeper Bebe
shop: Beeper Bebe
Flickr: Beeper Bebe


Holly February 22, 2010 at 8:11 PM  

Thanks, Wendi--looks fantastic and it was fun to respond to such good questions. I will link to it tonight on my blog...cheers!

Faye November 15, 2010 at 7:35 PM  

thanks so much for opening up and talking about your life and journey. i think its inspiring to hear people actually doing what they love to do. its also reassuring to hear from bloggers who are awesome. that they are actual real people and do real things, want real things and enjoy doing it. i wish i had a tenth of the motivation, dedication and creativity that you have! ps. i so care that you made an itty bitty chicken cushie. to the point of being weird lol

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