Meet the Maker

It’s been two years since he moved into the house at the end of the cul-de-sac, but Jeremy Madl is still a mystery to his neighbors in suburban Overland Park. From the windows of their neutral-colored houses with basketball goals in the driveways, they peer at him — a 30-something guy dashing out each morning to his white Toyota Scion XB, dressed like a teenager in baggy calf-grazing shorts, an ever-present baseball cap and shell-toed Adidas. Tattoos crawl out from beneath the sleeves of his T-shirts. His neighbors know he has kids and a wife. They know he must be employed somewhere.

The neighbors probably don’t know that Madl is internationally famous. People in the United Kingdom ask for his autograph, factories in China await his command and fans on Internet forums analyze his work to predict his next move. Still, even some of Madl’s biggest devotees wouldn’t know him if he stood next to them in line at Target.

Lured by MySpace bulletins and blog posts, his admirers gathered at Phenom, the boutique streetwear store at 1521 Grand. There, one day last spring, a few giddy fans clutched red-and-white boxes of Madl’s creations while he sat, amid shelves of Day-Glo sneakers, with a permanent marker, signing his name.

Madl makes toys.

His designs appear on molded hunks of PVC, manufactured in Hong Kong in limited batches and sold to collectors for $5 to $500 each.

Behind Madl hangs a print of one of his most recognizable characters, the Modern Hero: a leaping skeleton with a row of gold-capped teeth and wearing a chunky gold dollar-sign necklace, Mickey Mouse-style trousers and puffy white gloves, one hand gripping a fire-spewing spray-paint can. Scattered on the walls are prints of Madl’s anthropomorphic monkeys, scary clowns and sulky kids with jackets pulled high and hats pulled low so that only their eyes are visible.

The toys sold at Phenom come in “blind” boxes, so there’s some mystery as to which design a buyer will get. The side of the box shows all of a toy’s possible patterns; numbers on the box indicate how many toys were made in each design, allowing the buyer to figure out how rare the toy is. Extremely limited runs of “chase” toys appear in each batch, and the laws of supply and demand apply: The rarest toys are the most valuable.

For the fans who have shown up to see him, Madl does something special: He tears into the wholesale boxes of 24 blind-boxed toys and, as if by magic, points out where the valuable chase toys are hidden.

Though these toys have the most potential to increase in value, true vinyl-toy fans won’t sell.

This fall, Kid Robot, which might be the world’s most famous designer-toy company, with hubs in New York and California, tapped Madl and 19 other artists to design paint schemes for toys in the company’s fourth Dunny series, a line of 3-inch-tall toys with silhouettes that resemble cartoon rabbits.

Series Four debuted at the end of September. Phenom sold out of its entire allotment — four boxes of 24 Dunnys, 96 pieces in all, $7 per piece — in four days. One repeat buyer told Phenom owner Clint Miller that buying the toys was addictive, “like crack.”

Toymakers such as Kid Robot bank on the compulsions that their products inspire.

At the beginning of October, Kid Robot flew Madl to Toronto for the grand opening of Circa, a five-story bar created by nightclub entrepreneur Peter Gatien. An entire floor is dedicated to Kid Robot’s designs.

Madl says the designers in the crowd were the ones in jeans and T-shirts, conspicuous among the glam club kids and Armani-clad businessmen with their trophy girlfriends.

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The company’s themed room featured giant-sized versions of Frank Kozik’s Smorkin’ Labbit toys — bunnies with five o’clock shadows puffing on cigarettes — that clubgoers could use as chairs. The cocktail tables lit up when people set their drinks on them, flashing Dunny silhouettes that moved in dizzying sequence in different colors. There was a 10-foot-tall Dunny made of chalkboard material for artists to draw on. Women wore wigs that matched their primary-colored outfits — perfect for marking with Day-Glo paints. The men’s and women’s bathrooms were connected by a long shower stall, in case someone was moved to freshen up in front of an audience.

Madl showed up in shorts and Adidas, his hair freshly cut beneath a new hat, sporting a shirt he’d made for the event. He drank Red Bull and vodkas and wandered through the rooms, greeting old friends from the art scene and shaking hands with Justin Timberlake, who reportedly paid $10,000 for a room at Circa that night.

Madl was in bed by 2 a.m.

Madl grew up near 92nd Street in Lenexa, playing with Legos and worshipping Star Wars. He went to Shawnee Mission schools and split his time between his mom’s place in the suburbs and his dad’s big-city-seeming digs near the River Market.

Madl figured that he’d study illustration or graphic design in college. He was always doodling. (He still carries around a small black sketchbook and blankets a fresh page with inked ideas each day.) His friends were into graffiti, and Madl’s doodling was influenced by their styles, but after watching his buddies get beat up or arrested for tagging, he decided he’d prefer to focus on school. He pored over urban art spreads in Japanese magazines, captioned with a language he couldn’t read. At the time, he didn’t know the history. Now he does.

By all accounts, a Hong Kong artist named Michael Lau started the designer-toy movement. At an art show in 1997, Lau displayed a collection of 101 G.I. Joe toys that he’d modified to look like his friends and neighbors — skateboard kids, graphic designers, urban B-boys. Lau went on to design a line of coveted toys, then Nike sneakers, then ad campaigns for brands such as Levi’s.

Other artists in China and Japan picked up on Lau’s idea. Several years later, when the trend was dying down in Asia, artists worldwide unleashed their own lines of vinyl toys. Companies such as Kid Robot and Critterbox identified vinyl toys as the next wave and hired artists to design them.

Between his junior and senior years of high school, Madl jumped at the chance to take summer courses at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. He loved the school and the city so much that he didn’t want to return to Kansas. But he did, just long enough to finish high school.

“Literally one week after graduation, I had my stuff packed and was on the road,” he says.

Madl returned to Otis. During his freshman year, the school introduced the country’s first bachelor of fine arts program in toy design. The program offered a course devoted to plush animals, which he took. For the final project, Madl’s professor instructed the class to re-create the toy that parents had fought over so viciously during Christmas 1996: Tickle-Me Elmo. Madl’s version was called “Nightmare on Elmo Street.” His Elmo had a detachable scalp that could be pulled back to reveal a plush skull and brain. When you poked the brain, a mechanism inside Elmo would make the toy twitch.

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Madl also took an action-figure class. He still has that final project locked in a padded briefcase. The fasteners snap open to reveal a decapitated clown with Bruce Willis muscles, each limb lovingly hand-carved out of resin and painted. The clown has a chiseled face, dollops of red on his cheekbones and two spikes of red fuzzy hair behind his ears on an otherwise bald head. When assembled and dressed, the clown is shirtless under suspenders that hoist up felt green-and-yellow polka-dot pants.

He entered the action-figure clown in his school’s final gallery show, but his assigned display space was on a remote upper floor. So he hired a friend, a bodybuilder and aspiring actor, to dress up as his toy, with makeup, yellow-and-green polka-dot pants, suspenders and all.

“What’s my motivation?” Madl’s friend asked him.

“Just act like a pissed-off clown. Don’t talk to anybody. Just frown at them and hand them these fliers,” Madl said. The fliers simply read, “5th Floor.”

Madl’s clown was a hit. He got an A.

At Otis, creative classes were propped up by instruction in marketing, business and economics. Madl had professors who, in their professional lives, held positions as judges in contract law and attorneys for toy manufacturers. Through them, Madl learned one of the most important lessons for an artist: how not to get ripped off.

While in college, Madl also landed a vital internship with toy-manufacturing behemoth Mattel.

He remembers one day when the Los Angeles office geared up for a big review. A huge conference room was set up with presentations that teams had worked on for weeks. Madl had been in the Disney-themed infant-preschool division, designing toys in Minnie Mouse patterns. This was the day when everyone found out whether his or her idea would sink or swim.

“The president of the company and two lower VPs came in, and there were probably a hundred different presentations set up,” Madl says. “They literally just went down the line and went, ‘Yes, no, no, yes,’ without looking at them, reading them, you know? And then it was done. It just sucked. It was like, wait a minute, I just worked for, like, three months on that — don’t you want to hear about it? But they’re off to the next meeting. Unfortunately, then that idea goes in a box and never gets shown again. It’s dead.”

Every decision was driven by focus groups and price points — the major factors involved with releasing a toy to every Wal-Mart in the nation.

What Madl was sketching in his black book was wilder than anything he’d dare showcase at Mattel.

And whereas Mattel was churning out its toys in six- or seven-figure runs, companies such as Madl’s beloved Kid Robot were manufacturing products in small batches — no more than 2,000.

After graduation in 2000, a marketing VP at Mattel offered Madl an interview. He turned it down flat. The other Otis students thought he was crazy, but there was one person who knew he wasn’t corporate material: Sarah Belcher, Madl’s girlfriend since their freshman year at Blue Valley High School.

“He doesn’t like to answer to anybody,” she says. “Except me.”

Madl briefly came home to Kansas, married Sarah and moved back with her to Los Angeles, where he interviewed at boutique advertising and design firms. He landed a job at JMP Creative, where he designed artwork for marketing campaigns. After three years there, Madl and a few other JMP employees spun off to create their own firm, called By George. He worked with By George until he and the owners parted ways — they were, he says, content to keep making toys for Taco Bell kids’ meals, he says. Madl wasn’t.

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He’d also learned enough to strike out on his own. Now, he says, “I make the choices. It’s blue because I say it’s blue. It’s got a butthole because it’s funny.”

Vinyl toys are relatively affordable to make. “If you’ve got 30 grand, you can make a really nice toy in a limited quantity, and you can sell it,” Madl says. “But if you don’t have the marketing or the fanbase behind it, you just made a bunch of toys that are going to sit in your garage.”

So Madl sketched until he found a design he liked: a square-headed doll with ample ears and a triangular body, two arms curled down its plastic sides and an elegant curve dividing the legs in a wide stance. It was simple and customizable. He named it Mad*l.

Madl took the concept to five design companies.

“Everybody liked it, but they were like, ‘Who are you? You’re not a Gary Bassman or a Tim Biskup,'” he says, referring to legendary pop-surrealist artists. “I didn’t have that fanbase or that public awareness. I was approaching it as, here’s a cool-looking toy and here’s 15 ways to paint it, and you can make it for this much.”

Madl finally got a yes from the sixth company he visited, a production and design house in Los Angeles called Wheaty Wheat Studios. The husband-and-wife team running Wheaty Wheat didn’t care that Madl didn’t have a following. They told him that he’d make one.

The chance Madl took was an informed one. Rather than sell Wheaty Wheat his Mad*l design, he drew up a licensing contract that gave them the right to make the Mad*l for several years, paying him royalties.

But the toys were just a means to an end. Like most toy designers, he had something bigger in mind: self-promotion.

He sold his 1,300-square-foot condo in Los Angeles for a half-million dollars and moved with his wife and, by now, two kids to a house in Kansas that seemed like a mansion by California standards.

He also registered a new business: Mad Toy Design Inc.

Madl says some collectors see a $100 price tag on a toy and assume that the artist is making a killing, but it’s not that simple. “The store’s gotta make money. You gotta pay for manufacturing. When it comes down to it, you might be getting $5 to $15 per piece that’s sold, and you only make a thousand of them,” Madl says. “Yeah, you’re making 15 grand, but in the whole picture, that’s, like, a job. But if a client comes to me and says, ‘Yeah, we saw your toys. We want you to do this ad campaign,’ and you make 50 grand on the ad campaign, well, then it was worth it.”

The Mad*l toy worked like a 3-D business card, and Madl started accumulating clients. Soon, he was pulling in work from big names. Pepsi and Toyota hired Mad Toy Design for ad campaigns requiring the kind of street cred that can be generated only through simulated spray-paint drippings and bold fonts.

Madl took it one step further. He started shopping for his own manufacturers in Hong Kong — where most toys are made — so he could control the production of vinyl toys that other companies were hiring him to make. He made the manufacturing arm of his business into a separate company called Solid Industries.

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Solid Industries is now cranking out its first job: a toy exclusively for the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, which is held on a campground in the hilly, rural county of Somerset, England. The festival has been described as a live mix tape, curated by a headlining artist who invites his or her favorite performers, usually underground hip-hop, avant-garde or rock acts. Last December, organizers invited Madl to show his work in a gallery on the festival site in Minehead, a resort town in Somerset. He got to hang out backstage and meet the members of Sonic Youth. This year, organizers asked him to create a toy for them. Madl dreamed up a figure named Dolbee, shaped like a cassette tape with arms and legs. (“Tapes always looked like they had faces to me anyway,” he says. “I think they did to a lot of people.”) Dolbee will debut at this year’s festival, where Portishead is the headliner. In the future, organizers will ask a different artist to design a new paint job for Dolbee each year.

Back in Kansas, on a normal workday, Madl gets to his studio at 9 or 10 in the morning, works until lunch, goes home, returns to work until 6:30 or 7, then goes home to eat dinner and put the kids to bed — three of them now, including a 2-year-old who knows how to say “tattoo.” After that, it’s back to the office until 2 or 3 in the morning. The wee hours are important — that’s when he can get his three manufacturers in Hong Kong on the phone.

Juggling these two companies, Mad Toy Design and Solid Industries, is still a one-man affair. Madl has an intern, 24-year-old Van Sneed, who helps him one day a week, mostly brainstorming and packing boxes for shipping. Sneed is also working on a line of clothing featuring Madl’s designs. If the line takes off, Madl says he’ll hire Sneed to run it full time, as Mad Toy Design’s first employee.

Sneed didn’t realize how well-known Madl was until friends of his from the Kansas City Art Institute geeked out at the news of Sneed’s internship. They gushed over how cool it must be, asked what Madl is like. Sneed told them that he appreciated Madl’s humility.

“I can’t stand dealing with dicks, and I’m not the type of person who will bite my tongue for the sake of getting somewhere,” Sneed says. “So if he was the type of person to be like, I’m the dopest person on planet Earth, and you should feel lucky that you get to be in the same room with me, I couldn’t deal with it. But dude is just, like, mad cool. I’m working from, like, 10:30 till, like, 6 but I’m having fun the whole time, just chillin’. We’re listening to Run DMC and making toys. You can’t really be mad at that.”

The party isn’t stopping for Madl anytime soon. He has solo art shows and toy releases planned in the UK in December and in New York in April.

Rooting his business in Kansas meant coming “home-home,” he says.

Madl’s studio is just a few blocks from his house, in the southernmost reaches of Johnson County’s sprawl. Soybeans grow in a field just across the street from the unassuming office park in Stillwell, where the other tenants include a desk manufacturer and a lawn-care company.

There, the walls have eyes — a few hundred toys stare down from shelves containing just a fraction of Madl’s collection. The stash includes treasures that would make a vinyl nerd swoon. He has several toys by KAWS, the graffiti artist turned designer turned millionaire, including three Dissecteds, figures with trademark X’s for eyes whose bodies are cut in half to reveal multicolored innards. Madl also displays a Yo Mama figure from Tristan Eaton, the artist who designed the Dunny (it’s shaped like a pregnant mother, with a detachable belly that pulls apart to reveal a toy baby), and an eggplant-shaped, warthog­like creature designed by his friend Sket1. One of his prized figures is by Lau. Called IAMJUNKIE, it’s a figure of a man stretched out like taffy, with knuckles that drag down to his feet and blocky black-rimmed glasses.

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Balanced atop his two computer monitors sit dozens of his own yet-to-be-released toys, including a set of little capsule-shaped guys with feet called Sharpest Sprayers, set for release in January. They look like Sharpee-brand markers topped with caps or crowns that come off to reveal spray-paint nozzles. One wears a Kangol-shaped hat and has stripes down its sides, like a track jacket. They all wear little shell-toe sneakers with an “M” for Madl on the sides.

“I always used to think, Wouldn’t it be cool to have little spray-paint robots that you direct and they do all the work?”

Sketches of various projects sit on Madl’s drafting table beside drippy jars of silver ink and cups of pencils and markers. There are traces of the work he just finished for Upper Deck, the company best known for making sports trading cards. Upper Deck hired Madl to contribute to a line of dolls modeled after hockey, basketball and football players. Each time Upper Deck releases a new figure, Madl says, it sells out in 30 minutes.

“Sports collectors don’t know who I am. They snap them up because this is a Sydney Crosby character,” he says, referring to the Pittsburgh Penguins center.

Recently, Kid Robot asked him to design his own line of toys, exclusively produced by Kid Robot.

Madl came up with the idea of Bent World Vandals, a series of 10 toys that look like graffiti tools — fat permanent markers, thick paintbrushes, aerosol cans and roller brushes — with faces, arms, sneaker-clad feet and cartoony names such as “Da Flow,” “Sloppy” and “So Fine.” The toys, which were released in August, come with a warning label that reads, “We do not promote or endorse illegal graffiti or vandalism. If you get busted don’t try to blame us. These are just toys, so if you try to use them to ‘get up’ they won’t work … GET BENT.”

There’s an 11th toy in the Bent World series — the chase toy — called Big Money. On the box, it’s a big, black-silhouetted question mark. But watchers of Madl’s work can guess what it looks like: a blocky dollar symbol pierced with three strike-through lines instead of one.

Madl collaborated with a Los Angeles company called Random Nature to make the Big Money symbol into a gold-plated necklace on a chain; he wears one most of the time. He made 13 special necklaces, with silver crossbones peeking from behind the gold Big Money symbol, to give to his 13 “subscribers” — hardcore collectors who pay Madl $2,500 upfront for a year’s worth of his creations, mailed out to them throughout the year. Madl has a waiting list of hopeful future subscribers.

The Big Money symbol means a lot to Madl, but it’s not what you think.

“It’s not so much that I’m about making money as it is a reminder of what money can do to you,” he says. “I have a lot of friends, artists who, in my mind, have lost their focus, lost why they started doing this to begin with…. As with anything in life, if you’re really passionate about it, good things will come. But I don’t like the egos that come with money, the cliques and the drama and the politics. It really doesn’t interest me.”

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He uses the symbol so much, he says, because it reminds him what’s important. “I’d rather focus my energy and time on things that make me happy. On being happy.”

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