The first conversation Uglydoll creators David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim ever had was about the meaning of the word "ugly." Ugly means unique, interesting, different. Ugly, they decided, is good.
They were in design school at Parsons at the time. He thought she was cute and made a point to sit next to her in illustration class. They shared the same vision, it turns out: to tell a narrative through products -- toys in particular.
Inklings of the "uglyverse" became apparent when Kim's student visa expired. She moved to Korea, leaving Horvath behind in the United States. By then a couple, they wrote each other letters. He signed one with a cartoon drawing of a googly-eyed little guy with big paws, a big head, a serving apron and a mouth set in a grim, determined line. Deciding he was a hardworking guy, they named him Wage.
Kim sewed that drawing into a doll made of soft felt and mailed it to Horvath. It had a simple, funny charm. When he received it he was so excited, he wanted to call her. But it was nighttime in Korea. Instead he ran over to visit his friend Eric Nakamura, who had just opened the store Giant Robot on Sawtelle in West L.A. "OK," said Nakamura, examining the doll, "I'll take 20."
"He thought I was pitching a product," Horvath recalls.
Kim sewed the dolls. Those initial 20 sold out in one day. "I was horrified," Horvath says. "We were going to send people there to look at them. It didn't make sense." But Nakamura ordered 20 more. Then 40 more.
Thus far, it was just Wage and one other guy -- Babo, which means "idiot" in Korean. But Horvath and Kim had more characters floating around in their heads: Jeero, pronounced like "zero," five-suckered Cinko, one-eyed Wedgehead and Ice Bat, cool as ice.
In that first year and a half, Kim sewed nearly 1,500 dolls. "My fingers are changing colors," she told Horvath. "We either need to stop or do this for real."
They found a factory and began production, then distribution. People began incorporating the dolls into their daily lives. They'd send Horvath pictures of Wage buckled into the backseat of the car. Or sitting at the dinner table. "What does Jeero eat?" they'd ask. "Can he reach the sink?"
Horvath is 40 now, and Kim is 36. Now married, they've been building the uglyverse from their L.A. home for the past 10 years. And no, they're not sick of it yet. In fact, they're working on the screenplay for an Uglydoll movie with Universal. They've also just released an Uglydoll party-supply line.
"Probably there are people out there who can't stand the dolls," Horvath says. "But we had a clear vision of what this should be and what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives."
He keeps this in mind when he is called upon to speak to kids. "If grown-ups tell you it's all in your imagination," he says to them, "that's good. Keep doing it."