For Julie B., The Future Is Pretty In Plastic
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Don't tell Julie B. there's no such thing as unicorns. She's a woman who made some. And her story tells us something about manufacturing in the United States in the 21st century. David Greene has been reporting on what's American made.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Julie B. is a toymaker.
How did you get into toys? I mean, did you love toys when you were going up?
JULIE B.: No, I had no toys as a child. I come from a family of scientists and teachers. And my Cabbage Patch doll as a kid was homemade. So it was - it was something I really enjoyed doing, was learning the process behind making the toys.
GREENE: So you had no toys as a kid.
B.: So I really didn't have - I wasn't that cool. I really didn't have anything that was popular.
GREENE: Julie B. - and yes, she goes by just Julie B. - runs a company called Pretty In Plastic. It's in a one-story building in this industrial area near the Burbank airport. The inside - a lot of personality.
Your earrings are doughnuts, that's what I've just noticed.
B.: These are doughnuts, and then I have barrel monkeys here.
GREENE: On a bracelet. And a skull - there are contrasts here.
B.: So, yeah...
GREENE: Skull ring.
B.: ...A little playful, tough, playful, tough.
GREENE: Julie's story actually begins on the East Coast.
B.: I worked for a company called Peerbrook Limited in New York in Brooklyn.
GREENE: She was designing toys - Grover, Big Bird, SpongeBob SquarePants. Then she decided to head West.
Why did you move to...
B.: It's cold there.
GREENE: Why did you move from New York to LA? (Laughter) It was the weather, OK.
B.: It's cold there. Yeah, basically. I mean, that's it.
GREENE: Well, not really. She actually found some kindred spirits in LA, a community of underground artists who were designing quirky toys. And she thought, why don't I manufacture them?
B.: So I started my company with that goal in mind, to provide U.S. manufacturing for local, smaller artists.
GREENE: Because the alternative would be that they would make things and they would have to send them abroad to be produced.
B.: Right, right.
GREENE: And you were sort of staking a claim and saying...
GREENE: ...I love toys. And I want them to be made in America.
B.: Yes, exactly.
GREENE: And how did it go?
B.: Not so well.
GREENE: Yeah, she just couldn't compete with companies mass-producing toys in China. Julie was working like crazy with little return.
So was there some kind of low point when you decided, OK, I need to sort of...
B.: Oh, (laughter) probably working in my kitchen, you know, with a pressure pot and having plastic spilling all over the place and, you know, slaving away for 15-20-hour days making poopicorns or something such.
B.: So here, we have a poopicorn. And so...
GREENE: Can you describe what - what I'm looking at here?
B.: So these - we have two little kids sitting on this little unicorn who's also pooping at the same time. So we have a little poopicorn.
GREENE: What - can you see that? Like, literally releases little pellets.
B.: Yes (laughter).
B.: So, you know, make pieces like this. We would make editions of 25 or so and then the artist would paint them.
GREENE: Julie was passionate about making these things. She just wasn't making any money.
So you're in your kitchen...
B.: Right, OK (laughter).
GREENE: No one's working for you. I mean, how - were there tears? Were - how bad did...
B.: Oh, there's been lots of tears (laughter) yeah.
GREENE: She was exhausted. And the work was actually dangerous.
B.: Some of the chemicals are very serious and you have to take serious precautions.
GREENE: Did you ever think of just getting out of this altogether?
B.: Yes, I've thought of that many times (laughter). I'm being completely honest with you here, absolutely. I'm, like, OK, backup plan. I'm going to be a IP lawyer. I'm going to work with patents so I get to spend all day in the patent office. I think they're fascinating. Child therapist - I don't know - open a pizza restaurant.
GREENE: But she hung on and we're about to learn how. Julie B. is now CEO of a company that employs a handful of people. Some are full time, some she steals from movie sets.
B.: And they may work on a film for a while and then they'll come in here and work on a fine art piece.
GREENE: Yeah. Walk onto Julie's factory floor and you don't see toys. It's giant pieces of art - pretty quirky ones.
I love your whiteboard. It's this week condoms, Godzilla.
B.: Yeah. Yes (laughter) yes.
GREENE: Does that capture kind of the work that you do here?
B.: (Unintelligible) bullheaded, tiki jackalopes - absolutely. It's usually more humorous than this.
GREENE: Toys weren't paying the bills, and so Julie B. adapted her business model to focus not on toys but on art - large scale art. Artists bring her some crazy concepts and she turns them into 3-D reality.
B.: It's a wonderful time right now as well because there's a lot of money allocated for public art. A lot of different cities, you know, they're required to allocate a certain percentage to public art. So that's...
GREENE: So it sounds like a real key for you has been to not market what you're producing as toys per se...
GREENE: ...But as art and something that opens new doors.
B.: Well it's - exactly. I mean, that's how we've transformed over the years. I mean, it's funny that we started in toys. We've just scaled up.
GREENE: Like, really scaled up.
B.: We just finished up an amazing project which was a 15 to 20-foot pollen sculpture.
GREENE: Pollen? Like the...
B.: Pollen. Like, pollen that gives you allergies.
GREENE: Pollen that gives you allergies, OK.
B.: Made out of plastic. This is going to Norway. It's going to be at a school in Norway. So they get to interact physically with this oversized macro pollen.
GREENE: OK. You know, the term name-dropper? It's usually not something you want to be called, but Julie is the best kind. Part of her business strategy is to promote people in this art community that she's working with.
B.: Munky King - 3DRetro - for example this piece by - for Tristan Eaton, the designer of the Dunny and the Munny - Koons, for example.
GREENE: Who's Jeff Koons?
B.: Jeff Koons is the balloon guy. He does the big dog balloons. You've seen those, I'm sure.
GREENE: I have.
GREENE: How is your company doing right now?
B.: To be totally honest, we're still working on it. There are a lot of challenges because a lot of times we are doing something for the first time. It's not like we're a bakery making doughnuts over and over every day and we have a great recipe we stick with. We have artists and clients come in wanting a 6-foot tall doughnut or something that we've never done before. So a lot...
GREENE: (Laughter) Different kind of doughnut.
B.: Yeah, there's a lot of research that goes into what we do, and therefore as a business model, financially it can be very draining sometimes.
GREENE: So are you profitable right now?
B.: At this point in time, we're working on it (laughter). We're staying alive.
GREENE: Staying alive by doing something few other manufacturers really do, which takes a lot of energy and brings its own risks. For now, though, Julie feels like she is in a good place.
B.: I love Los Angeles. This is an amazing city. There's so much energy here and so many possibilities. There's a lot of amazing artists here. and anything you want to create from that, there's a way to do it and make it happen.
GREENE: That's Julie B. She's the CEO of Pretty In Plastic. She is a manufacturer in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.