We are really excited to announce a new interview series called ‘5 Questions With…’ where we’ll feature designers and shop owners, giving you an introduction to some super inspiring people with a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their business, work spaces and favourite products. And we’re starting with a huge bang – interviewing the lovely Jen Murphy from Polka Dot Club.
Esther and I first met Jen a few years ago in NYC when she was starting her business. We fell in love with her teddy bears immediately and couldn’t resist buying one for Marlow and Casper. Years later, those teddy bears remain our children’s most treasured belongings. I loved reading Jen’s answers and seeing her stunning photos, and I’m so excited to share with you below.
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself, where you live and about your family.
We call our home a tree house. It’s an old Victorian duplex we’re slowly turning into a single family home. There are trees all around it, a big porch on the second floor that feels like perch, and from the third floor its all skylights and blowing branches. In the winter all the house plants that summered outdoors come in and the greenery fills the inside as the cool days and long winter set in. We built a sauna in the back yard to make the very long Minneapolis winters seem like a luxury instead of a burden and it seems to be working. It can feel magical. I live here with my husband Jay, who’s also an artist (fine art- paintings, sculpture, video, and…) and two young children. Our daughter is 3 and son is 6, and though we’ve only lived in this house for 5 years it’s Home.
My studio is here at home for now. We carved our a space in what was two bedrooms on the first floor where I work. With little kids, work time seems to be broken up into short bits- nap times, care schedules, laundry… I feel both the burden and the utter joy in being able to split up my days with work and life and family and it all moves in and out with, on good days, ease. It’s not forever, but for now it works.
We moved all over the US before we settled here in Minneapolis, neither Jay nor I grew up here. It was a choice to live in the midwest were you can feel the seasons marking time, houses are inexpensive, kids can go to good public schools, and our community of friends and other makers are closely connected. We chose our neighborhood so we can walk to nearly everything we need and trek another 6 blocks to the banks of the Mississippi river where it feels wild and miles away from anything while being right in the middle of the city.
2. Tell us about Polka Dot Club and how you came to create a business making teddy bears.
I’m a second generation teddy bear maker…
My Grandmother taught me how to sew when I was seven, a year later my mother began making teddy bears and before I was eleven years old I was using her scraps to make my own bears and animals. In the mid 80’s an artist teddy bear movement was happening and there were huge shows popping up all over the world- convention centers were filled with people making and buying teddy bears. It was a strange and amazing way to grow up. My mom and I would travel the country selling her bears and I would put a few pieces out on the table and began to draw collectors of my own. I made teddy bears through high school and college, and in 2001 I launched a website (jmurphybears.com) with one-of-a-kind collectable pieces.
After making teddy bears for nearly 20 years and after having 2 kids, I launched the POLKA DOT CLUB in 2013 – a collection of heritage toys each handmade in Minneapolis. I’m so passionate about making children’s toys with the same materials and methods used over 100 years ago. It’s not easy, fast, or inexpensive but it feels right. The mohair, that makes the bears so very special, is loomed in Germany at one of the only remaining mills left in the world. Mohair ages very differently than the contemporary alternative synthetic plush; it ages with dignity showing it’s years, but gracefully, and begs to be passed on from one generation to the next. My focus is on making playthings that will not be tossed aside as a child outgrows it. These toys value is not diminished by the years of love and play, rather they become more special over time because of the quality of craftsmanship and fibers. I’m excited to be making modern heirlooms- for now and forever.
3. I’ve seen glimpses of your studio on your Instagram feed, and have always wished I could have a better peek at your beautiful work space. Describe your studio and walk us through the process of making your bears.
My studio is one long, thin room lined with shelves of fabric, supplies, bears in the works… I have 3 tables cluttered with little bear clothes, scraps of fabrics, ideas in process… Everywhere there are bits and pieces: artwork, drawings, vintage toys, old fabric pieces – visual inspiration everywhere I look. There is so much in the my studio it’s a marvel it all fits in this small space. While it’s always messy, everything has its place. Somehow the clutter of working this way feels easy to me – unlikely parings present themselves, ideas open up, and somehow the visual layers make me feel free to try more, do more, stay open.
Each morning I start work with coffee and business. I asses the day – I respond to peoples questions, correspond with stores and collaborators, print invoices, and figure out what needs to be done. Each day is different and determined by projects and orders I have in the works. I clear off my worktable where I draw and cut pattern pieces, pack boxes, stand and work. I move around my studio- each area allowing for ease of working on different projects. About half of all the sewing on the bears and rabbits is done on the machine, the rest is done by hand, so when it comes time to sew I sit, listening to music and podcasts and I stuff each piece, embroider faces, add finishing touches… It’s just me, and 2 sewers that work on the PDC. They help a lot, but I wear all the hats around here. When you email the PDC- it’s me you get!
4. What do you love most about your job?
On good days I’m really lifted up and excited by how agile and open it is being a small business person. I love my job, and when I’m present and not bogged down by the hulking to-do list I see how I’m driving this train, and I can take it wherever I want to go. That’s exciting, liberating, and so wholly empowering. I’m also constantly aware of my audience. My favorite childhood toys loomed so large in my life; they were companions, coconspirators, characters imbued with all my childhood imaginings. The idea that I’m creating that for someone else is such a privledge and a pride.
5. What is your favourite product in your collection and why?
That’s tough. All the Bears and Rabbits have something special that appeals to kids at different ages and something that keeps me excited about making them, but the Classic Bear is just that – so endlessly classic. I love the straightforward timeless design thats made to last and only gets better with play.
The articulated limbs, materials, and attention to details and the history are unlike any other contemporary toy on the market. That feels like a special place to be – made to play with, made to pass down to the next generation, but always good looking enough to keep out on the shelf too. I like that. It’s a place of honor.