When ubiquitous in-flight catalog SkyMall filed for bankruptcy last month, the response was dramatic. "It's the end of an era," declared Fast Company. "Goodbye, Garden Yeti," lamented NPR. Indeed, where else could you buy a screaming zombie statue for your garden, or a life-size King Tut cabinet for your bedroom? Or at least marvel at the fact that you can, and that a very strange publication carried by major U.S. airlines makes that possible.
Unless SkyMall finds a new buyer in March, the delightful reminder that such items exist won't be greeting air travelers anymore. But in case anyone is truly worried about a garden yeti extinction, here's the good news: many of Skymall's most iconic items all come from a single Illinois company, Design Toscano. And that company, a home and garden juggernaut 25 years in the making, is determined to offer everything-you-didn't-know-existed-but-would-kind-of-maybe-want for a long time to come.
Here's Design Toscano in a snapshot: the company sells over 6,000 products, spanning the categories of garden items (e.g. vampire and fairy statues), "tongue-in-cheek" novelty gifts (e.g. an armadillo beer holder or knight toilet paper holder), and "serious" furniture based off historical pieces (commonly carved furniture from across Europe). Its products can be seen in movies like Night at the Museum, TV shows like Sleepy Hollow and Blue Bloods, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and, in the case of the giant garden yeti, the main lobby of Amazon's headquarters in Seattle (and possibly somewhere in Matt LeBlanc's house). That's now—but how did Design Toscano corner this niche-seeming market of outlandish kitsch in the first place?
It all started with Design Toscano co-founder Michael Stopka traveling around Europe as a consultant in the late '80s, visiting castles and museums, and coming to the conclusion that there's an untapped market for replicas of historical furniture back in the U.S. Upon returning home, Stopka partnered with a friend in the statuary business, put up some advertising in the back of magazines, and quickly expanded through a domestic mail-order catalog, garden shows, and in recent years, the Internet. According to Stopka, various small companies dabble in Design Toscano's different categories, be it antiques or fairies, but no one else has centralized all of it to the extent that Toscano has.
Today, Design Toscano releases 300 to 400 items a year, a huge portion of which are designed from scratch by the company's creative director, Steve Pseno. In a phone interview, Stopka explains that whereas big boxes offer "pretty generic" products, Pseno is all about finding that "Toscano spin," which usually means experimenting with all kinds of "personalities" for popular categories like gargoyles, or Romanesque columned things.
Stopka says that for Design Toscano, you don't just have angels; you have "art angels," "sexy angels," and "vampy angels." You have skeletons that are (purportedly) suitable for a year-round garden display. You have a mountain-climbing squirrel. The unending procession of garden gnomes goes without saying.
"[Steve] doesn't like gnomes, so when he does gnomes, he does things that are fun, so like zombie gnomes, biker gnomes, gnomes that are mooning the world," Stopka says. This spring, Pseno is introducing another Design Toscano exclusive gnome, one "Atlas the Athlete," who comes outfitted like an early 1900s power-lifter.
Pseno, who's been at the company for over 20 years, says his creations are partly responsive to what's trending in the market and partly based on his gut feeling about what would sell. But often, they're also inextricably linked to what's happening in his life. "I call the statues 'My Children'," he writes in an email. "Many of these pieces follow my life's journeys." One angel statue was designed for his daughter when she was born; a fisherman sculpture was created to honor one of the company's French sculptors who passed away; the idea for a yeti tree sculpture came to Pseno as he was watching a group of kids play hide-and-seek.
As for the world-famous "Bigfoot: the Garden Yeti," that all started eight years ago, when Pseno asked himself, "What's the modern gargoyle?" Right away he remembered being captivated by an episode of the '70s quasi-documentary show In Search Of…, in which the mysterious phenomena of Bigfoot was investigated. ("Yeti," just to be clear, is the name of a similar creature reported in the Himalayas.) Pseno developed initial sketches of what he thought Bigfoot looked like, and then, working with a sculptor, he created a prototype that ultimately takes after the one seen in the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film, which allegedly shows a Bigfoot sighting in California.
According to Pseno, when his colleagues saw the first sample of the yeti statue, they thought it would never sell. "SkyMall had to be pushed to run it too," he writes. "Mike and I took a gamble and ran with it." Sales were just okay at first, but Pseno says it really took off once "word got around that SkyMall was selling a Bigfoot." To date, the airline catalog has sold over 10,000 Design Toscano yeti statues.
Though the yeti will be a Design Toscano mascot and bestseller for years to come, the company's current rising stars can be found in all kinds of animal garden statues, which have "really exploded," according to Stopka. "People love animals— you watch the Super Bowl ads and you see how many commercials are based on animals, be it exotic like elephants and tigers, or dogs running for Budweiser."
Design Toscano's consistently top-performing animals include a black panther, lions, bears, gorillas, elephants, dogs, cows, and pigs. According to Stopka, 40 percent of the spring catalog will be dedicated to animal-related products. Once the company sees one kind of animal doing particularly well, they'll then make it in all different sizes. And often, just by adding, say, one glass surface, an elephant sculpture instantly transforms into an elephant end table.
SkyMall, which put Design Toscano products in the seat-back pocket in front of an estimated 1.6 million people every day, has been a good indication of the brand's bestsellers. "If it made SkyMall, it was one of our top products." says Stopka. He says SkyMall's bankruptcy is painful on two fronts. First, there's the loss at a financial level, though Stopka holds that SkyMall didn't drive the lion's share of his business. According to Stopka, the more pressing loss is that, throughout the two companies' 15-year relationship, SkyMall has really made Design Toscano products known. "The branding you got from being in SkyMall can't be replaced," Stopka says.
"SkyMall has used our products really as their icon products—the zombies, the gargoyles, the yeti," he explains. "Those are the pictures you saw up on the national news." Stopka is of course referring to the countless articles that covered the bankruptcy filing, not to mention the Jimmy Fallon segment that featured Design Toscano's zombie statue. He hopes someone will buy up SkyMall and keep their partnership going, but in the meantime, Design Toscano is already working on expanding into other channels, primarily on the web.
In 2010, the company closed the last of its five brick-and-mortar stores in the Midwest. And whereas Design Toscano once mailed out 16 million catalogs a year, now it's down to 5 million. Today, 70 percent of Toscano's business transactions touch the web. "We're at the point now that we have an internal person that we hire within Amazon that's full-time," says Stopka.
The company is currently in the process of launching on Amazon Germany, where many items, like a Florentine lion sculpture and a "dragon fairy" wall scroll, are now available for pre-order. Stopka also has his sights set on Japan and China, which will bring yet more chances to reintroduce Design Toscano's all-time bestsellers, such as the yeti, the Belgian peeing boy, and the Egyptian throne chair. There's a caveat though: something that does well in the U.S. doesn't always work in other markets. For example, nutcrackers, though super popular during the holidays in America, don't get much action in the U.K. And the yeti, well, Stopka says, "You bring the yeti there and the English people would say 'OK' and they don't get it."
In SkyMall's bankruptcy petition, acting CEO Scott Wiley blames the catalog's demise on the rise of electronic devices and internet access on planes: instead of getting trapped in SkyMall's baffling pages, people can now lose themselves in smartphones, tablets, laptops, e-readers, and if they really wanted to, venture directly to an online retailer that sells the very SkyMall item that blew their mind. As former Wired editor Chris Anderson explains in the New York Times bestseller The Long Tail (2008), the advent of e-commerce means people aren't limited to a finite set of "hits" that physical store shelves can hold, but now have the ability to search and find an endlessly "long tail" of inventory on the web. And so just like music and books, everything Design Toscano produces, no matter how niche or otherwise unpopular, can find considerable-enough demand online, even if it means a little bit at once, for a long, long time.
According to Stopka, of the some 400 new products his company releases each year, one-third does really well, one-third does okay, and one-third does horribly. But these days, even that last third isn't much of a headache at all. He says that prior to selling on places like Amazon, they would just sell through the initial batch of low-performers and it would be over. But now, they keep the "misses" around, too. In Stopka's words, "somebody in the world will like it."
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