People say never meet your heroes. With this in mind, I was unsure of how wise it would be to reach out to Lisa Frank, whose mysterious, cult-like reputation is both fascinating and intimidating. Intimidation aside, I could not help but feel it a timely moment to seek out the true story behind this artist and businesswoman who I have deemed godlike since I was young.
This feeling began taking shape while I was working at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, just after finishing my undergraduate years at the School of Visual Arts. At the gallery, I would watch Rob Pruitt’s work pass through and recall the Lisa Frank folders of my childhood. This past year, the Frieze fair on Randall’s Island was threaded with a common use of cartoonism in the work of artists like Ed Fornieles, Julia Wachtel, and Matt Kenny, only further stirring my nostalgia. The widespread impulse to relay concepts through avatars seems apt, and significant. Like Sims, these cartoons exist within technical parallel universes, acting out in ways we wish to, but often do not — much like the versions of ourselves we manifest through our iPhones.
But at the beginning, there was Lisa Frank. I decided to reach out to the woman behind the characters that still so intensely recall my childhood self. As you will see through our conversation, Lisa is exactly how one might imagine her to be. She is very much alive, energetic, and hard working. Like the Sottsass nightstand I discovered in her bedroom, she is a beautiful design, made of parts that may not correspond immediately, but as a whole make up something of genius. I sat with Lisa in her office, surrounded by years’ worth of technicolor backpacks, sticker books, etc., as she looked down at my interview questions on a white sheet of paper.
Carly Mark: We’re both from Detroit, where we similarly had the good fortune to attend Cranbrook Kingswood High School. The campus itself, built by Eero Saarinen, is influential. Tell me what it was like during those days.
Lisa Frank: Do you think I can really remember? (Laughs) You know the schools in those days were separated. Kingswood was all girls and Cranbrook was all boys. They had real people teaching, accomplished artists. We sat in the original Saarinen chairs. I don’t think we realized what we were surrounded by. I can tell you I wouldn’t be who I am without that experience. I had a senior show of the paintings I made when I was a student there. They were up on the wall, I sold out, and received a ton of commissions. Lee Iacocca, former president of Chrysler, bought a painting.
Do they still have senior art shows?
CM: Unfortunately, no.
LF: My dad wouldn’t have eventually cut me off if he didn’t know I had all of those commissions. I lived on those earnings forever. When I was in high school he was paying for all my materials. When I got the commissions he said, “You’re paying for all the supplies.” Then when I told him I was going to the University of Arizona he said, “That’s fine and I love you all the same but I’m not going to support you.”
CM: What did that early work look like?
LF: My dad had one that was his favorite. The only work that I have is what my father kept. He was hanging me along with masters. For me to be on his wall, it wasn’t out of love. Not that he didn’t adore me, but he wasn’t going to put something on his wall that he didn’t think was quality. That in itself was so motivating to me, that he wanted something of mine.
CM: You mentioned the work is abstract?
LF: Right, abstract, but you will see where the Lisa Frank colors come from.
CM: What type of materials did you use?
LF: All acrylic on Masonite and canvas. I would sometimes use paper on Masonite for texture. Everything was very colorful.
CM: Was the abstraction influenced by the teachers you had at Cranbrook?
LF: Definitely the teachers, but also Jasper Johns, and other artists in my dad’s collection.
CM: How did you transition from abstraction into commercial art?
LF: In college I had to support myself. So, in the beginning, I went to the Indian reservations. I would sell their art and jewelry. I still have a big Native American art collection because of that fact.
Jumping ahead, I would later tell them what to make and realized that everything I told them, versus what they wanted to make on their own, sold. A light bulb went on. I thought, “Oh, I guess I have a really commercial sense.”
At first I didn’t want to do unicorns. The artist in me said no. Then I thought wait a minute this is commercial art. Let’s do what’s going to sell. So that’s how that happened. I then made my own line of jewelry called Sticky Fingers, which was almost Carmen Miranda. I bought plastic fruit, glue guns, and put everything together. It sold so well. I went to gift shows and my orders got so big that I couldn’t represent anyone else. I made a little assembly line in my guesthouse of people putting all of this stuff together for me.
When Sticky Fingers took off this was the day of AIDS. No one knew it was even called AIDS. A lot of the reps were gay, all of my friends were dying around me, it was crazy. When I think back it was kind of a sad and scary time.
CM: Do you think that influenced the things that you were making? What you ended up with is so far in the opposite direction of those feelings.
LF: I don’t know if it really influenced my work because it didn’t happen until after I started to become successful. I think the reason I made what I made is because I’m unconventional. I am who I am. You read stuff about me; people think it was all influenced by drugs. You couldn’t do what I did if I was on drugs. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Saint Laurent movie, have you seen it?
CM: Not yet.
LF: it’s phenomenal. But I mean, my god! How did he do what he did? He was an alcoholic and a drug addict. He actually lived an amazingly long time for what he did to his body. Anyway, it’s surprising to me that you could be that way. Looking at it I see that he had a business partner. But I was running my business. You can’t be just a creative; you have to be a businesswoman, too. You have to have the motivation to get there.
So much happened that was not deliberate. These were things that I felt in my gut, which is really crazy when I look back.
For a while a lot of people did not know that Lisa Frank was a person. They used to call my boyfriend Frank (his name was not Frank).
CM: People are often confused by the name Carly Mark. We have the same dilemma of two first names. The latter most often assigned to males.
LF: Exactly! It leads to confusion but I was out on my own. Once I realized I was actually in business I started adding things to the Lisa Frank line. One of the first things I made, which is one of the few things I don’t think we have, was a little box we called an all-in-one. It had a painting of a teddy bear on the front and the eyes were star earrings. You opened up the box, took out the earrings, the lid was a pin, and then inside the box was a necklace. That took off like wildfire. Of course, I got knocked off. This is around the time I met a guy that said to me “Anything you can draw I can have made for you in the Orient.” That’s when we started doing buttons. In the early days I was drawn to Felix the Cat and Betty Boop. So I asked for the licensing from King Feature for Felix, Betty Boop, Mighty Mouse, and Popeye. So, along with my stuff, I had some licenses. We used that for buttons and all of a sudden Spencer's Gifts said to me, “If you can turn those buttons into stickers I’ll give you a million dollar order.” This was around 1982 and I’m only 28 years old. I’m a kid. A million dollar order seemed like fifty million to me.
CM: It still sounds like a big order.
LF: Well right. When you’re a kid! So the problem was in those days the printing of stickers was very archaic compared to how they’re printed today. Back then they were usually printed with flexography. We figured out a way to keep our colors from getting muddy. From early on we were always very bright. I think that stems from the fact that even now that I’m older, look at my energy! Can you imagine me at eight? When I was little I don’t think my parents knew what to do with me. So they gave me a box of crayons and a coloring book. They did it to calm me down.
I see something and I’ll shelve it in my brain, but my timing is off. I’ve always been ahead of the game. I was making leopard underwear thirty years ago. Literally rainbow leopard underwear. People thought I was a kook. It didn’t sell! It was so new. When we started this business everything made for a consumer was solid colors.
There was also no licensing business. When I went to King Features they weren’t really licensing Felix the Cat. They looked at me and said, “Oh, that’s a good idea, sure we’ll charge you.” So much of what I did then you can’t do today because it’s already happened.
We try and experiment with things even today though. I know our fans that grew up with it in the ’90s are die-hard. They really do love when we give them the classic stuff. It’s difficult to embrace the new but they will still embrace it.
CM: When I was walking through the inventory I noticed things are organized by production date. I could see the line between my era and my younger sister’s. There was such a different gut reaction to the imagery from my era opposed to hers. You attach so much to the imagery that you become devoted to it.
LF: Oh yeah, we hear it all the time.
CM: My little sister used to have the girls with the big eyes but that was after my time. I see the dolphins and the unicorns and I feel emotional.
LF: The big eyed girls, that was pre-Bratz, pre-any of it. I look back at it now and think, “I can’t believe that stuff sold.” But it was really popular. There are a few Lisa Frank big eyed girls that are very popular today but it’s with the former fans that are having kids. I think Lisa Frank, even with little kids, not just the fans who grew up with it, know us more for animals and our eyes. Then the movie Big Eyes comes out and all of a sudden the whole industry has big eyes.
CM: Let’s talk about Margaret Keane while we’re on the subject. You mentioned to me that her work had an effect on you. Is that the initial reason you gravitated towards the big eyes? Or was it anime from Japan?
LF: To be honest with you, in the early ’80s, I can’t really remember exactly what made me gravitate towards the big eyes. I was invited to Japan by a department store called Seibu. I know later in the early ’90s we had stores in Japan and we were always in the magazines there. In Harajuku, these people loved Lisa Frank. I’m positive that Japan had a big influence. I remember that everything was very graphic there; It was so cool. But that was early ’80s, I was already doing the little dancing bear. The influence and the evolution kind of happened at the same time.
CM: You didn’t even see it coming. You had already started moving towards the big eyes before you visited Japan?
LF: Yes, everything we did was always sweet with those eyes. Today we know what we’re doing but back then I didn’t. I just thought, “Try it all, throw a ton of stuff out there, see what sticks, and learn from your mistakes.” When I would go in to see a buyer I didn’t want to hear, “Your stuff is so great.” I wanted to hear about the problems so I could correct them. That’s how you learn.
CM: We briefly discussed art collecting. You noted Charles Bell, Davis Cone, and Don Jacot as some of your favorites. These are all hyperrealists. Arguably I would say that your work is a form of hypercartoonism. It’s really sharp the same way hyperrealism is.
LF: Right, because I feel like our technique is related to what we’re about—we’re fanatical about our artwork; it’s ridiculous. I could show you something that just came in, it’s a brand new thing, and while in the scheme of commercial art it looks an A+++, I see problems with it. Lots of problems, and I’m mad at myself.
I’m looking at so much art and I’m really the company’s sole eyes, I’m the art director. When you’re making so much product and you have to push it through, things FALL through. Do the fans see it? Do the customers see it? No. I’m just so critical. There are hundreds of hours in a new piece of art. It’s probably obsessive and crazy to think about.
CM: It is crazy to think about because you have such variety. I was looking through a stack of sticker books and every single one was different with a variation of designs inside.
LF: But that’s why we’re so hot still today. There are some companies that have been hot forever but all of a sudden are dead right now. The same image has been plastered on hundreds and hundreds of products but the consumers are not stupid.
Also believe it or not, the consumers with less money have a keener eye than the ones with more. Consumers with less money only have so much to spend. For this reason they are critical and want to buy the best of the best. I’ve always appealed to the masses because, I felt so lucky to grow up in a beautiful world, and believe just because someone has less money, why should they not be offered the best of the best, as well?
CM: I’m thinking about the evolution of the product, and there were a few years where you laid low.
LF: The ’90s into early 2000s we were a pretty big company. Then I went through a divorce.
CM: That type of situation helps sometimes.
LF: Right, because of the demand.
CM: You became something that was hard to acquire. It really heightened the cult factor around the company. Whereas some other companies are so accessible that they become less interesting. You have to play hard to get a little bit.
LF: You know, I’m not playing hard to get on purpose. It’s just that I do what I do because I love what I do. I never did it for fame, fortune, or publicity. As a matter of fact I didn’t even take advantage of it at all. Probably stupidly so.
CM: Well, when you don’t want it, you don’t want it.
LF: Exactly. I’m not a big spotlight person.
CM: Your product is so strong that it speaks for itself.
LF: It doesn’t need much. People tell me that not knowing me or seeing me lends to their imagination. They make up who they want me to be.
CM: Let’s talk about Pop Art really quickly. It had a huge effect on you.
LF: Yes, correct, but my dad had Josef Albers, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Jean Arp. He collected art. In those days, those artists weren’t who they are today. Guys like Peter Max would come to Detroit and then they would have a show at the Detroit Institute of Art. My dad would bring home a signed poster. I have my original Peter Max poster he brought home that was signed by Peter himself. I’m now told that Peter is a huge fan of mine.
CM: I’m sure, that makes a lot of sense.
LF: Isn’t that funny? So I just was brought up around it. There was always a discussion at the dinner table. He would say, “I’m thinking of buying this, or this is worth so much.” I can show you a few things in my house that are crazy that he paid nothing for that are worth a lot today. I have the few things that didn’t get sold for our education.
My dad was on the board of the DIA. He was so involved with the museum. Even though he was an automotive manufacturer (he grew up in his dad’s business) it wasn’t his passion. He didn’t live his life his passion. Which is really sad because he died young, in his very early 50s. When he died, Art in America was 8 feet tall in his bathroom and in his office.
I feel like I’m fortunate enough to live my passion. I don’t need to work and on a bad day I want to throw in the towel. In five years I’ve probably quit 500 times. My true passion is art so I don’t want to just put trash out there. If it’s junk I won’t put my name on it. There’s a big commitment to making beautiful quality work or else I really don’t want to be involved. I mean, yes, it’s a business but it’s more important that the art is beautiful.
CM: You care about the product.
LF: Oh yeah.
CM: That’s something that has also set you apart from other companies.
LF: It’s hard, too, because some people think we’re difficult to deal with because we’re so picky. That’s not the case though. Do you really want trash out there? Trash doesn’t sell. Or it dies.
After our interview, Lisa and I spent the evening over margaritas at the new Guadalajara Grill in Tucson. The original had burned down a few months before and the floor was still so newly polished, I couldn’t help seeing myself slipping on it. Though at that moment, slipping was not a concern. If I took anything away from my time with the prolific Lisa Frank, it is that falling can be a method towards progress. It was this idea, combined with a fearless surrender to aesthetic desires, that determined her process of innovation and shaped her legacy.
To create a self-made brand is not so different from what we do on Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter. While Lisa created her world for the purpose of commerce, in the realm of social media, commodification of oneself has become the goal, and likes are the currency. Similarly to Lisa’s brand, our Internet identities are based on our aesthetic desires—how we want to be seen rather than how we are. The more ubiquitous and dynamic these outlets for aesthetic fulfillment become, the more we evolve into caricatures of our projected selves. (I can’t help but picture a Ryan Trecartin video as I wrap my head around this.) Maybe the reason I still feel emotional when looking at a Lisa Frank dolphin is because these creatures were my first avatars. Now, you are what you Tumblr. My self is an amalgam of selves cultivated in the flesh and online. The distinction is less distinct.
Because art mimics life, it appears this evolution is being evoked through the use of cartoonism. (I keep thinking of Lisa’s Sottsass nightstand and recall the first invitation to a Memphis exhibition in 1981, where an airbrushed cartoon of a dinosaur peers out at the viewer.) When I look closely, I see more than a benign reflection of the world in which we live; I see a conversation about immersion, about the blurring of the lines between selves. Like the way Julia Wachtel’s cartoons slice through images of Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus, the distinction between cartoon and life appears to be slowly disappearing. Soon we might all live in Cool World.