OAKLAND, Calif. — Fall in the United States marks the annual rite of purchasing school supplies; Americans spent over $70 billion in 2012, if you count college students. The National Retail Federation notes that families spend nearly $650 on average. And anecdotally speaking, a quick stroll through any Staples or Office Depot becomes a slog this time of year, with kids and parents pushing carts aisle by aisle with checklists in hand.
The cultural impact of this moment is rarely considered. But it’s often when kids begin exercising agency in how they’re perceived by peers — a form of pre-social media brand management, if you will. The folders and notebooks one purchases at the beginning of the year sets the stage for at least the first few months. Meanwhile, the practice of putting stickers all over one’s backpack and folders continues with the current practice of putting stickers on one’s laptop and car, not to mention our Facebook profiles.
One particularly memorable producer of those supplies was Lisa Frank, whose psychedelic colors and creatures were especially popular in the 80′s and 90′s. Her current web site contains the tag line “the site GIRLS love!”, reflecting a general marketing strategy toward young girls in the U.S. But who is she? And where does her work come from?
A short, and perhaps the first, video interview with the very private artist — “For everyone who wants to know if I do exist,” she declares, “I do exist.” — recently floated to the top of Vimeo’s Staff Picks. And for good reason: the film features a tour of what looks like a massive studio complex in Arizona, where her penchant for pop contrasts sharply will the more staid palette of the desert.
“And I was a huge color-er. Huge,” Frank notes of her childhood. “To keep me quiet, they brought the coloring books and the crayons, and I used to fill up the books. Then they’d have to buy me another one.” She walks the audience briefly through her process before computers came along, and precious moments are spent poring through her archive. She cites happiness as a key reason the products have been successful.
In the world of pop stickers and school supplies, I’ve always seen Lisa Frank as an American counterpoint to the Sanrio empire, whose products have also consisted of bright colors and creatures that project a certain giddiness and energy.
And yet an interview with Hello Kitty’s current head designer Yuko Yamaguchi pointed at similar reasons for the character’s popularity, noting that fans “want to be as happy and as accepted and popular as Hello Kitty.” The stickers, school supplies and other products occupy entire Sanrio Stores in malls in both North America and Asia (and perhaps other continents too). Hello Kitty has undoubtedly had a more global cultural impact than Lisa Frank’s Hunter cat, but they both elicit wild nostalgia from fans.
The Lisa Frank video is produced by Urban Outfitters, which began selling overstock of her work in their stores last year. A Buzzfeed review of the sticker sets captured the business brilliance of that move, which tapped into nostalgia for people in their 20′s and 30′s who were kids at the peak of Lisa Frank’s popularity:
This sticker box changed everything. I really DID want to collect them all — 20 years later — and as I went through the following sheets of blinding rainbow colors I became overcome with nostalgia: I’m pretty sure that I actually had this exact same sticker box. The rainbow kittens, panda bears, butterflies, roses, and puppies were all there, just as I remembered.
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