FriendsWithYou: Plush Playgrounds
- Words: Vivian Host
With so many brands trying to insinuate themselves into your daily life, it's easy to be suspicious of an organization that wants to befriend you. But it's hard to stay cynical about Friends With You, an outfit so upfront about their intent that they've made their mission statement their name.
In actuality, Friends With You's Sam Borkson, 27, and Arturo "Tury" Sandoval (son of the Cuban jazz trumpeter of the same name), 30, consider themselves merely the earthly vessels by which a panoply of otherworldly characters–Malfis, the Good Wood Gang, and Red Flyer–get their message of magic and wonder across to the world. The Miami-based twosome started their outreach in 2002, hand-making limited numbers of plush characters and selling them via designer toy emporiums like Kid Robot and StrangeCo. Unlike "too cool for you" vinyl toys, each FWY avatar came with a story: Shoebaca, a pile of brown fur with removable kidneys, was designed to help you make decisions; King Albino, a giant fuzzy square with a gaping maw, promised to "erase all of life's embarrassing moments."
It may sound crazy to you, but FWY's ageless philosophy has taken off like wildfire. Erasing the line between childhood and adulthood with a rainbow-dipped paintbrush, they've created a playground at a mall and an interactive dream installation for the Miami MOCA, as well as hotel rooms, a stop-motion short film for Nike, a blimp parade, and a forthcoming line of children's books. Is there anything they can't do? No, and you can do anything too–just take heed of their inspirational words below.
XLR8R: When did you realize that you could do what you wanted as "work?"
Sam: We don't call it work. And we've been always doing it.
Tury: It is a full-time job to do what you want. People take it for granted that other people are there to dictate what they need to do. Once you have full control of your actions then you are also in full control of your failures. Can't blame anyone else, and that in turns makes you be even more responsible and on point.
Where do you get your best ideas?
Sam: I get tons of them from dreams, from seeing a spirit in the street or just looking at something ordinary differently. I love to study religions old and new to see how they advanced civilization through messages, and try to adapt that to the very open club we are creating.
Tury: The best ideas are the ones you always had–it's how you interpret this and how you implement those ideas in the real world. That is where function and form meet to create magic or a disaster! The best (or my favorite) ideas are the ones that take a long time to form. Quick ideas are like cheap thrills: sweet and great, but they make you feel like you are not really in control.
What keeps you in Miami instead of moving to NYC or L.A.?
Sam: I love, love, love Miami. It's a great portal to the entire universe and the rest of Earth. Miami has a great spirit and a ton of mashed-up culture, which is very inspiring. We also have access to one of the greatest power centers in the world, which is our beautiful beaches, great weather, great times, and lots of BBQs. The energy here is very thick and you can either have amazing adventures or hide away in meditation and hard work and study.
Tury: Miami is where the magic is! Don't you know? Yeah, you knew. That's why you asked.
What character are you closest to?
Sam: We are both Malfi by nature, I feel some kind of silly spirit that is a trickster and is all powerful.
Tury: Characters come and go! They are just like friends: you fall in and out of love, and you find each other again some time after... I'm most fond of the characters that we are working and developing right now, including some of the old ones that keep reincarnating into new forms and shapes. That permanent transformation is what makes a character powerful!
Your work suggests that humans need magical talismans.
Sam: They don't need them, but they do need spirituality–all humans do. It's why coming together to pray is so important. It gives you magical and superhuman powers when we focus our brains together towards a certain goal or resolution. Our magical talismans are basically a good way of presenting people with a focus tool to help them empower themselves.
Tury: Talismans or amulets are of great importance because they serve as a constant reminder to their owner that he or she believes in that outer option. Without that in place it's so easy to fall prey to the modern (false) sense of control. You will always find a lot more spirituality in communities or countries that are poor or in a chaotic social state. These people have little control, [so] believing is an essential need for survival. We (first-world citizens) don't need that any more, and that makes us a little cold. It's humbling to know that you are not in control. Once you know this then it is freeing to know that control is something that you can live without. We tell people that they are not in control and they freak out, because they have nothing else to fall back on!
What is your favorite magical talisman or creature, like Pegasus or a rabbit foot?
Sam: I love all of them and they are all relevant to what we are doing.
Tury: Outside of the ones that we design ourselves, I would have to say Eleggua. [An orixa of the Santeria faith, who is a trickster god. – Ed.]
What are some big influences on your design?
Sam: Mother Nature, TV, Miyazki, Tezuka, Jodorowsky, religion, the future, the universe, microcosms, branding, kawaii culture, the internet and new information systems, music, life and adventure, and lots of science.
What comes first when you create a plush toy, the story behind it or the actual figure itself?
Sam: Mostly it is a simple shape or feeling we have and we are depicting it through the simplest means necessary. Then so much emotion and life begins to attach to it as we distort and construct and deconstruct the idea. We draw them hundreds of times together and it's really fun!
How much of an influence is Japanese culture on Friends With You?
Sam: Huge. The Japanese culture is absolutely genius. They keep themselves young through their ancient diet of sea plants and fermentation devices, they have a vast knowledge that the world is hungry for, and their version of consumerism is really brilliant. We study hard to convey emotions through simple brands and characters–it is an intelligence we love to learn and combine with our life and experience, and the rest of the world's, and then rebroadcast the signal from the other side of the world.
What is the best advice you ever received?
Sam: "Be truthful in your pursuits" is a great one.
Tury: It's hard to say. But this friend of my dad once gave me The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and a Jimi Hendrix tape. Those rate pretty high on my list.
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