To their legions of fans -- Sasha Obama and Snoop Dogg included -- the Ugly Dolls are anything but ugly.
With names such as Babo, Big Toe and Puglee, the plush creatures look more like impish cartoon monsters than adorable Beanie Babies.
Millions of these odd, squishy misfits have charmed their way into buyers’ hands since David Horvath began doodling them eight years ago on letters to his college sweetheart, Sun-Min Kim.
Manhattan Beach residents Horvath and Kim had dreamed about creating toys that could tell stories and make kids happy. But they eschewed the route normally followed by entrepreneurs: Make a toy that fits a trend, pitch it like crazy to all the big toy makers, pray they buy your idea and sell your toys at Wal-Mart.
Instead, Horvath and Kim started small and tried to stay that way by selling only to independent stores. They began by making things they loved.
One of the dolls, Uglydog, landed in Alex Silva’s suitcase after she spotted it in a gift shop in Providence, R.I., five years ago.
Back home in Miami, her father, J.C. Silva, was intrigued. He researched the dolls online and was drawn by their simple aesthetic.
Now a dozen of them overrun the middle school principal’s office. At home, Silva and his three daughters have collected more than 150, including a few that Kim sewed by hand.
“I don’t think they’re ugly at all,” Silva said. “I think they’re different, just like people. They bring a smile to your face.”
The very first Ugly Doll was an orange dude named Wage (there’s now a smaller version named Minimum Wage).
The story of how he was created began 12 years ago at the Parsons School of Design in New York. That’s where Horvath met Kim, while both were studying fine arts. After Kim graduated in 2001, she returned to her native South Korea. Horvath moved back to Los Angeles, heartbroken.
The two kept up a correspondence. Horvath signed his letters to Kim with a drawing of a little monster wearing an apron. They named him Wage. It was his way of telling her he’d work hard to bring her back to the United States.
One of his schemes, born while he and Kim were in college, was to develop a line of toys based on his drawings.
His mother, who worked as a toy designer at Mattel Inc. in El Segundo, urged him to pitch his idea with toy executives.
He did so halfheartedly, “mostly to please my mom,” Horvath sheepishly admitted. It was no surprise that he struck out.
That Christmas, Kim stitched together a doll based on his doodle and sent it to him as a present.
Horvath was so pleased, he carried the doll around with him to show his friends. One of those was Eric Nakamura, who had recently opened a store in Los Angeles called Giant Robot, specializing in Asian pop culture items.
“You see a lot of things that tried to be artistic or awe-inspiring,” Nakamura said. “This was the opposite of that. It didn’t try to make you feel cool. It had everything to do with being honest. I guess that was because it was a handmade present. It wasn’t made to show off or make money.”
Nakamura asked for dolls to sell in his store. Horvath rushed home to call Kim.
“I said, ‘Thanks for the doll! Can I have 20 more?’ ” he recalled.
Two weeks later, Kim sent a batch of hand-sewn dolls. Horvath dropped them off in the morning. By the time he got home that night, an e-mail was waiting for him from Nakamura, saying the dolls had sold out and requesting more.
For the next 18 months, Kim sewed about 1,500 Ugly Dolls. They sold faster than she could make them, so the couple began contracting out the work, first to a Korean factory near Kim’s home, then to manufacturers in China.
The company is based in Edison, N.J., where the distribution warehouse is located and where the company’s 12 employees work. But Horvath and Kim, since reunited and married, live with their 2-year-old daughter, Mina, in Manhattan Beach, where they design the dolls and create stories to go with each character.
Babo, for example, is a blockheaded blue monster who will run at the first sign of trouble. The name came from a Korean word that means “fool.” It was also Kim’s affectionate nickname for Horvath while the two were college sweethearts.
Horvath won’t disclose how much their company, Pretty Ugly, makes from its dolls, books and action figures. But Time magazine in 2006 pegged the company’s 2005 revenue at $2.5 million. Today it’s much larger, Horvath said.
Maybe it had to do with a flurry of interest generated in January when Sasha Obama was spotted toting Babo’s Bird on her pink backpack on her first day of school in Washington. Or perhaps it was because the dolls won the Toy of the Year award from the Toy Industry Assn. in 2006. That was the same year rapper Snoop Dogg was photographed holding a giant green doll named OX.
Ugly Dolls are still one of the bestselling items at Giant Robot.
“You see guys, women, young and old, buying them,” Nakamura said. “It’s very rare that an item can cross age and gender groups. And you don’t have to be rich to buy them. They’re not very expensive.”
Priced between $6 and $50, the dolls could easily be sold at discount retailers such as Wal-Mart. But Horvath and Kim said they have resisted that route in order to preserve the company’s plucky, independent culture.
Instead, the dolls can be found at small stores such as Giant Robot, Hi De Ho Comics in Santa Monica and Play@Planet Funk in West Los Angeles.
“There are a lot more independent stores than Wal-Marts,” Horvath explained, quickly adding, “I have nothing against big companies. I just like to shop in mom-and-pop stores. I remember when I was 8 years old, I went to Forbidden Planet, an independent comic book store in New York. I stared into that store window as a boy, amazed by everything in there. For me, it was a huge thrill to be able to see my dolls, years later, sitting in that same window.”
As with many toys, Horvath acknowledges that the doll’s celebrity-like status could fade. But because he and Kim never had intentions for their project to be so big in the first place, they’re content to cater to as many, or as few, fans as their work has.
“As long as there’s one person who likes them,” he said, “we’re perfectly happy.”