Shawn “Shawnimals” Smith
UVD: Would you mind telling us a little background about yourself (i.e. where your general base of operation is, when you started designing, and how you first started out)?
Shawn: I come from the video game industry, where I worked as a game reviewer for a magazine called Electronic Gaming Monthly back when it was based in the Chicago area from 1994 – 2000 or so. After I left the magazine, I went back to college in Normal IL of all places to finish my degree in painting. During that time, I started making these weird, sort of artsy “stuffed animal” things based on doodles from old sketchbooks. A bit after that, I liked them simply as art toys, and started selling them online to friends and friends of friends, not knowing there was a burgeoning designer toy scene. That was in 2001 – 2002, and then my girlfriend Jen (now my wife) moved to Chicago in 2003, where things started growing. We’re now based in Chicago, with 5 of us total, having ridiculous brainstorming sessions, making awesome things.
UVD: Understandably, the name Shawnimals, is borrowed from your name. When getting started, what drew you to the realm of plush over vinyl/plastic that so many artists seem to start with?
Shawn: Full disclosure, one of my brothers Scott called me Shawnimal when I was kid. Kind of forgot about it until a friend mentioned it to me and it stuck. Plush made sense because I could do it myself with little experience or start up costs (say, compared to mold making and the like). Besides, my aesthetic lends itself to plush most of the time. I like some stuff being made in the vinyl scene, especially some customs, but for whatever reason we just haven’t done much in that realm outside of a few instances. Not at all against it, just haven’t… yet?
UVD: What are some things that influence you and your work? Is there any artist’s work that inspired you and your style early on in your career?
Shawn: Anything and everything. My ideas come from simple, humble places, having to do with my daily (seemingly boring) life. Maybe it’s coming from a mundane place, and making it awesome through fantasy? Certainly there are tons of artists I look to for inspiration, but here’s a quick slice: Philip Guston, Paul Klee, Dehara, Ferg, MAD, Devilrobots, and many others. I also like to look outside of toys and art for inspiration, whether architecture, technology or furniture designers, etc. Of course, let’s not forget video games, comics and other pop cultural influences rooted deep in my subconscious…
UVD: Would you mind telling us about some of the designs that you came up with when you were first starting out and how designs have progressed over the years?
Shawn: In the early days, I didn’t use patterns, and, in fact, some were literally hand-sewn. They look crude in hindsight, but also endearing. I think back to those early episodes of the Simpsons on the Tracy Ulman show and how they’ve evolved to what they are now. Almost slick in a way, and very purposeful. I like evolving that way – especially if it’s a natural evolution.
UVD: Looking over the bio on your website, I noticed that EGM was once a spot where you hung your hat. While at EGM, was there anything learned from that experience that helped push Shawnimals forward, or are they polar opposite directions?
Shawn: Writing concise, entertaining, imaginative copy. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t know how to write well. And really, the job itself also helped me in that I really liked writing and loved games, but it helped me realize I love art and design the most. Outside of that, I have many old friends who still work in the industry and have helped in insurmountable ways over the years. And I love them all for it.
UVD: Noticeably, the Ninja seems to be the most robust character of the Shawnimals Characters looking over the past figures and lines. Would you mind telling us a little about the back story of the ninja and how he became such a central figure to the company?
Shawn: Originally, the Wee Ninja was simply one character in a side project where we created smaller Shawnimals called Shawnimites. These Shawnimites were around 6 or 8 characters, each having an arch enemy. So it was the Wee Thumbs against the Wee Digits, the Wee Niblets against the Wee Peas, and the Wee Ninjas against the Wee Devils. Mr. Demon – the main bad dude – was behind the whole thing as an experiment. After that, people really seemed to like the devils and ninjas, and I was looking for a new project to focus on for a while, and Ninjatown was born. Wee Ninja was around 2003 and Ninjatown came to be around 2005. The rest is history, thanks in part to ninjas being awesome, but also because of our Nintendo DS and iPhone games.
UVD: Also, you happen to have a successful series called the Ninja of the Month with a new ninja figure once a month. Is there any open secret on how you or others that offer monthly handmade plush figures manage to produce enough figures in a given month for a decent sized demand without destroying your hands or staying up for weeks on end?
Shawn: We have a staff in-house that creates everything we do that’s handmade. Jen, Monte and sometimes Mikey, but we all help out if necessary. Right here in our Chicago studio! It’s not always easy, but we think it’s worth it to offer something special like this.
UVD: Even perusing Best Buy, I noticed that the ninja has its own video game. How was the process on your end for having one of your figures as a character in a mass produced consumer product, and were you satisfied with the end result?
Shawn: I love the end result! It wasn’t a traditional license, in that we were involved in the entire development process, and talked once a week with the developer Venan, producers at Pickle King and publisher for an entire year. It was intense, and took a ton of time and energy, but it helped propel Ninjatown and Shawnimals into a whole new world. We helped on the creative side with new characters, filling in the blanks on old characters, and working with the development team at Venan to give all characters interesting, useful attributes that effected how the game played. It was an amazing process, and we love what was made.
UVD: Without being completely fixated on the Ninja character, there are also several others that have recurring roles in your lines. One of which being the mustache. There has been a recent upswing in people being obsessed with mustaches. Since I am guessing your mustache has been around longer than this trend, would you mind filling us in on what brought you to the mustache character?
Shawn: Our original Moustachio was made in 2003 or so. It was a large black, furry mustache-shaped plush with red eyes and a stitched mouth. Around 2005 we made his son out of brown plush felt, and figured it would be a good idea that this Son of Moustachio had a stache all his own. Stache with a stache was born. Sure, mustaches are trendy now, but how do you make something like that interesting? What’s the spin that makes it transcend the usual idea of stache? We nailed it, long before the hipsters did…
UVD: If you had to make an all-star lineup of your already produced figures as your most fond figures, which ones would be on the team?
Shawn: This is the hardest question! I guess Wee Ninja, Orange Leggy, Buffalump, Splug, Moustachio, and… Burgermouth? I would like to also have a genie on hand so I could make three additional wishes.
UVD: Lest we forget to ask about your recent Plushform Show at OhNoDoom!, how was it orchestrating the show and also having your platform figure being customized by so many different artists?
Shawn: I’ve either curated or helped curate at least 4 Plushform shows now, and I love the customs artists come up with. It’s why I wanted to create Plushform as a medium in the first place. When an artist does something completely unexpected and awesome is my favorite part of customs, whether plush or vinyl.
UVD: Are there any future projects that you wish to discuss for the reader to keep their eyes open for in the upcoming future?
Shawn: Our new iOS app Ninja Builder let’s you customize your very own Wee Ninja and share it with friends! We’ll have all sorts of cool stuff going on with that soon. And if you have an Android, chances are we’ll have something for you in the Trees of Doom! variety in the next few months.
UVD: What would your encouragements/suggestions be for artists/designers that are either just starting out or who are trying to get themselves noticed?
Shawn: Do what you love, be a real part of the community, and don’t be an asshole. Nobody likes assholes. And nobody likes fakers. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t bite someone’s style. If you do it by mistake, own up to the coincidence, and move on.