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June 21, 2005

{     Interview : Friends With You     }    

Everybody needs friends like Friends With You. The Miami-based design team has been shaking up the world of collectible art with their astonishing and magical plush creations for the past few years, and now they stand poised to unleash their work into new mediums, and to an ever-expanding audience. With their hand-made approach, their decision to work with non-traditional materials and the fantastic stories and themes that run throughout their work, Friends With You are more like a coven of three mad-scientist/magicians than they are simply a collective of like-minded artists. After a gallery show with fellow art-warlock David Choe and right before a trip to Japan so they can spread the FWY virus overseas, Melody, Sam and Tury took some time to answer a few questions for Crown Dozen.

&tAdam: I've been loving on your work for a couple of years now, ever since I saw Mr. TTT for the first time. Since then, I've watched designer plush become a much larger and more involved movement, and noticed that Friends With You has been along for the ride- infusing the scene with lots of wild energy and creativity. Now you're branching out into other things, and your plush line and design work continue to grow. How do you feel about where you are now, compared to where you were two years ago? Melody: WOW, a completely different world. We started sewing unusual shapes on the floor of our house, making things we thought could really come to life, just a silly fun idea. We really haven't stopped working to make this company successful and now we're traveling to so many amazing places, being commissioned by Nike for a short film, by galleries for installations, selling all around the world - ITS GREAT AND COMPLETELY CRAZY!
Tury: Is great to see a burst of people making original characters, in plush or in any other format. Now we are exploring with actual habitat. We are doing this exploration in galleries and in any other medium we can get our hands on. Creating spaces where these creatures live, or where these toys would be used by other beings like gigantic gods from another dimension.

I know you started by putting all this together yourself, just the three of you. Is everything still hand-sewn? Have you been able to farm some of your work out, or are your fingers constantly sore and your thumb a bloody mess?
M: We hand made them ourselves until I sewed right through my nail and it came out the other side, then Sam got his finger too. We decided we couldn't keep sewing into ourselves, so we have a very sweet seamstress who makes them all for us by hand. Her name is Golden Eyes.

Do you still have day jobs? How do you manage your production schedule while dividing your time between endeavors?
M: I still do. It's very difficult and nutz, but you work your ass off during the day and then you do as much as you can after that and basically you're just working all the time. It's fine though, this is the time to do it - to use up all your energy and MAKE SOMETHING FUN HAPPEN! Tury and Sam don't stop either! Both of them left their day jobs to concentrate fully on Friends. However, both of them work on freelance jobs constantly!!

How many pieces of a particular character will you produce at a time?
M: Microbes only come in millions

This February, Friends With You got to do something I've always dreamed of, which is attend Toy Fair. (FWY had their own space at the 2004 show, the most gianormous trade show ever devoted to toys.) First, I know Sam and Tury were there, did you get to join them? Any crazy stories to tell?
M: Yes, I did! IT WAS AMAZNG! We had a booth right next to StrangoCo, Critterbox, Acky Breaky Toys, and Toy Tokyo- it was great. We stood in the middle of the aisle and harassed everyone who walked by, giving out brochures, and making them rub Malfi for good luck! We also drove everyone around us crazy - jumping from booth to booth taking toys from everyone! HAHA!

I know this isn't your first convention, but I imagine it was the most mainstream if not the largest. How did the decidedly more "traditional" toy crowd react towards what you do?
M: Most LOVED our stuff, some didn't know what the hell to think and a few walked by and looked very concerned - not wanting to slow down for fear of a FRIENDWITHYOU attack. But mainly everyone really recognized that between all the booths around us, there is a new movement in toys coming, that "Art" toys are innovative and that there may just be a big market for our stuff!

I understand you have a show in Japan next month, tell me about that. Are you excited? Is this your first time in Japan?
Sam: YEAH its gonna BE GREAT. WE have joined forces with MUMBLEBOY and GAGA INC. to do a huge Doll tornado installation. With psychospecial wall of dreams animation and it's very onw soundtrack... WOOO HA! It will be amazing, and this is my second time to Tokyo. I am soo excited to GO BACK!
T: It is for me. It's really a dream come true. Sam and I are making a plan of attack to see how we can terrorize these people in the most effective way. I have not shaved in like 3 months just in preparation for this event.

I can't count the number of people I've heard mistakenly refer to Friends With You as a Japanese-based company. (I admit that Mr. TTT does make me think of Hiyao Miyazaki's Catbus from My Neighbor Totoro, a little bit) Do you draw inspiration from Japanese pop/toy-culture, anime, etc.?
M: Absolutely, of course we do.
S: Miyazaki is an ultimate inspiration for us, and now since the world is getting as small as a computer screen on which you can view what is going on the inspirations run rampant and we can explore the mysterious East and combine it with our local inspirations.
T: Inspiration comes from all kinds of places. We really try to keep things simple and minimal. I think that is where the parallel exists. Japanese design is a huge influence. No doubt about that.

What are your favorite Japanese things?
T: I love Japanese candy & stickers the most. But really, all of it seems alien to me. It is fascinating as a designer and a consumer.

How is your work received in the East? What percentage of your sales do you think come from "over yonder"?
M: humm..not as much as we'd like, but we're slowly creeping in and taking over!

I read a little bit about your collaboration with Dave Choe at San Francisco's 111minn gallery, the Appetite for Mutilation show. You must have had a fucking blast! Tell me about the Treasure Whale and the Wizard.
M: It was great! He's amazing! When we met him in San Diego, we took a little joy ride to TIJUANA! Yes, all the stories are true..strip clubs, corrupt cops, "donkey" shows, drunken mess, award-winning tacos, THE WORKS!
S: The treasure whale is carried by the wizard until he bursts forth treasure and miniature versions of himself to make their own way in the world and find a wizard of their very own. SAN FRAN was awesome. DAVID CHOE loves GOD and JOE TO knows all the hot spots for Vietnamese delicious treats...We played some street soccer/football, and I busted my ass pretty hard. It was an amazing adventure!
T: It was so good. The whale and the wizard soft sculptures... It's so nice to make things that have a volumetric existence.

How comfortable was the collaboration, and is this something you will be doing more of?
M: It was very comfortable. We're definitely interested in doing more!
T: We are collaborating all the time. We work in a collaboration system. We are really comfortable in that field.

Do you have more "large-scale" pieces (like the Treasure Whale) in store for the future?
M: Yes! We've got the Japan show in May, Miami in June, and LA in November..for now..and we have some really fun, HUGE playgrounds in mind!

I know that it hasn't been easy walking the line between "toy" and "art", and that sometimes people's perceptions of what you do are a bit skewed. Which group shows you the most love, the "toy" kids, or the "art" kids?
M: We love everyone! Both groups love us!

You've been working on some wooden toys, to be released this year. What can you tell me about them? Does this series have it's own history, separate from Malfi, Red Flyer and the gang?
M: They're so f*cking cool! They are fully modular (peg system) hand-painted hand-crafted toys. Yeah, each one has a magic story separate from our plush, although we do have a version of Mr. TTT, the wood one is Mr. TTT Burger with a muscles-flexing t-bone steak!
T: Aaaah... The Good Wood Gang... Coming soon...

What spurred the decision to work with wood?
M: We really wanted to do something different, in a material that not many people are working with in the "Art-toy" genre. We wanted to do something old school, something fresh and collectable.

I understand you may be teaching the collectible vinyl market a thing or two this year as well, releasing a line of Friends With You toys. What characters will be transmuted from fabric into polyvinylchloride, or will you be dealing with original character designs for this line? Who are you working with on this, and what should we expect?
M: Well, that's top secret! But we are producing a key chain version of our MALFI main character in the Nike movie we made. MR. WIZARD MALFI key chains with amazing enchanted trinkets will be released in May - we're doing this together with StrangeCo.

I love the backstory you've created for the plush line, the idea that these are microscopic creatures that have been suddenly enlarged to interact more directly with the world we (as humans) are consciously aware of. Each character even has it's own story and background. At what point in the creation of a character does this story form? Do you pass the story along with each plush, in the form of a brochure or tag included or do you let people make up their own stories about where they come from and who they are?
M: The stories were passed down from our great grandfather, the one who initially discovered them! When you get a Friend, its story comes with it on its tag, so you know exactly what it can do for you and how it can make your life better!

Ever since visiting your website, the idea of animating your characters has seemed like a no-brainer. Have you made any progress on that? Do you see this as something with a universal appeal, or is this something only those in the know will be down with?
M: YES! We want to make an animated series RIGHT NOW for everyone to enjoy!

When it comes to animation, what are your favorites, whether feature-length or cartoons?
S: Well we've already touched on Miyazaki, but I also love Jan Svankmajer's work. FLCL is one of the baddest animes I've ever seen, as well as LAin and so forth. Ren & Stimpy originally changed my life and I've been working towards making good on my SECRET CLUB MEMBER oath I made several years ago while sitting two inches from the TV.

Do you collect toys or plush? Who are your favorite designers, and what are your favorite pieces?
S: Yes I collect both, I love the Devil Robots ( Tofu heads and Golden boys)!! I have a bunch of old school MUSCLE men. I just got the butcher from the new Dehara capsule toys, which I am ecstatic about. I love weirdo plush. I love Critterbox's toys- they are absolutely perfect in their entirety. I have an amazing Domo-kun plush that I dress and undress daily. I love supermilk... SO MANY toys! I really need to take a break...
M: I actually collect candy. I have an extensive collection of horribly strange candy from around the world - I am very attracted to the packaging. But we do have hundreds of toys too - we actually have an altar full of all the ones we've collected throughout the years.
T: I have a decent but not extensive collection of mini figures. A lot of cheep stuff mixed with random toys from Cuban dollar stores.

Are you familiar with the "plushophile" phenomenon? Do you believe that there are people out there who actually get off on sexual contact with a stuffed toy, or is this just an urban myth? Do you ever wonder about your work "falling into the wrong hands"?
M: Definitely true!! We love plushophiles, they have ordered from us before, we know who they are by the combination of Friends they order... we got our EYE ON YOU!!!
T: If you need more info on this subject please contact-

There is much talk of magic when discussing your characters. I am of the opinion that most of what is magical in life we lose an appreciation for as we grow older, becoming jaded and more experienced. Your work brings that child-like feeling of wonder back to life, and it does so in a context that is still palatable to us as adults. There's just something about the primal shapes, textures and appearance of your characters that triggers those old feelings, recalling a time when it was possible to believe in anything. There is also something about them that can be a little scary. Like they are avatars of some ancient chthonic power, or vessels of some voodoo spirit. Do you ever get that feeling, or is it just me?
M: Hey! Thanks so much that's really nice! Yes, we definitely love bringing the wonder of childhood into our work. The three of us are really very silly and crazy and seriously DO BELIEVE IN EVERYTHING magic and fun, no matter how old we are - if we're lucky we'll stay like this till we're old and wrinkly, farting on our grandchildren and playing on the see-saw with them!
S: You put that really GREAT!! EXACTYLY RIGHT!! THANKS!!
T: I am really superstitious. And I would never mess around with a Malfi if I was you. I also never leave a Poppings alone, or walk backwards in front of an albino squid.  Good Luck and be careful.

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