Colorforms, at 50, an Idea That Stuck
It began when some cash-strapped art students started looking for a low-cost alternative to paint.
The search led Harry and Patricia Kislevitz to colorful, paper-thin vinyl that stuck to shiny surfaces. But the vinyl failed as an artistic medium, and the Kislevitzes left it in their bathroom with a pair of scissors to entertain house guests.
“Our friends would go in and do the most marvelous Matisse things on the wall. And they’d never come out,” Patricia Kislevitz said. “Harry said, ‘I think we’ve got something.’”
Fifty years later, Colorforms has a new owner and is doing some experimenting with new materials. But the basic concept has not changed since the toy’s formative years in that orange-and-green bathroom: Children take shapes cut from vinyl and stick them wherever they can.
That’s all it takes to generate tens of millions of dollars in sales each year. By 1990, Colorforms had sold a billion boxed sets.
“I think it speaks to the elegance and simplicity of the idea behind Colorforms,” said Moss Kardener, who became the business’ general manager after San Francisco-based University Games acquired it in the late ‘90s.
A straightforward approach has been part of Colorforms since its earliest days, when its founders picked the simplest of names for the assortment of geometric shapes they cut from rolls of vinyl crammed into their New York apartment.
“I said, ‘Let’s call it what it is: color forms,’” Patricia Kislevitz said.
Their creation caught on quickly. FAO Schwarz sought exclusive rights to sell Colorforms, an idea the Kislevitzes rejected. Orders flooded in and Harry Kislevitz hired a cadre of salespeople to sort through them.
The business outgrew the apartment near New York University and the couple moved to a house in River Edge. Later they started a factory in northern New Jersey, moving it several times before settling on Ramsey.
Colorforms were among the first toys featured on television commercials and they pioneered the realm of licensed characters with a 1957 Popeye Cartoon Kit.
“It was the ultimate rainy day or sick-in-bed toy,” said Sarah Orleans, a co-founder of the Garden State Discovery Museum in Cherry Hill, N.J., which is featuring a Colorforms exhibition.
As time passed, the Kislevitzes got divorced and Colorforms evolved. Popeye gave way to Charlie’s Angels, G.I. Joe and, eventually, Blue’s Clues and Harry Potter.
“It’s a history of popular culture,” said Paul Deion of Hope, R.I., who owns the largest known Colorforms collection.
The company also owned other toys, including Shrinky Dinks and the three-dimensional game “Don’t Tip the Waiter.”
Debts and a need for fresh perspective led the Kislevitzes to sell Colorforms to Toy Biz in 1997. University Games acquired the business less than a year later for an undisclosed sum.
Harry Kislevitz moved to Santa Barbara, but his ex-wife and company co-founder still lives in the house they bought together.
The living room is a jumble of shapes and colors. A cardboard cutout of a young Marilyn Monroe, wrapped in feather boas, stands behind a 23-section sofa. A mobile designed by Alexander Calder sways nearby. And a statute of Felix the Cat looks on from the corner.
“I like things that smack of Americana,” Patricia Kislevitz said.
There’s hardly a trace of her own contribution to American pop culture. Other than an anniversary edition of the original Colorforms booklet, the company name is nowhere to be seen.
Still, Kislevitz is quick to tell her successors when she thinks they’re mistaken. She was not fond of the lime-green and reddish-orange colors used in the anniversary booklet, saying children prefer bright primary colors, vivid green, black and white.
In the last couple of years, University Games has tested new Colorforms products, including puzzles and Colorfelts, which use a fuzzy material instead of vinyl.
But the mainstay remains the traditional boxed sets, which are available in more than two dozen countries and sell for $4.99 to $6.99 in the United States.
Deion, who works as a Colorforms consultant, compared it to “a good old family recipe.
“If it’s something that’s well-received and popular and everybody likes it, you don’t change it.”