A chat with Jen Murphy from Polka Dot Club...
Posted on November 13 2018
I am super excited about our upcoming project with the Polka Dot Club, we are lucky enough to have a couple of Jen's precious creations and they bring so much joy to my girls.
The back story of the brand is such a special one, we wanted to speak a little more to Jen about her journey and share with you!
Tell us a little bit about your background and why you started the Polka Dot Club?
I'm a second generation teddy bear maker...
My mother taught me how to design patterns and sew teddy bears when I was eleven years old. It was something she inspired in me after coveting antique, mohair teddy bears years earlier, unable to afford them herself. She taught herself, then taught me and throughout my childhood we traveled the country selling her beautifully crafted pieces. For as long as I can remember this is what we did. We made things.
In my twenties and early thirties I successfully carved out a business making one-of-a-kind teddy bears and animals for collectors worldwide, but once I had my own children I questioned why I was making “toys” intended for adults, often relegated to decorations. I wanted the objects I made to be animated by play and imbued with the love children give their favourite toys. In 2012, I launched the Polka Dot Club with this in mind and in the intervening years I’ve seen how that simple act of learning to sew all those years ago, has so deeply impacted the way I live, work, and parent. I wanted to reinforce the idea that everything in our home was crafted and didn't just appear on a shelf ready for us to digest. It came from someplace and someone, which is a very powerful idea- one that I’m committed to. It feeds the Less Is More ideas about consumerism and quality but it also empowers everyone to become a maker themselves.
My Studio here in Minneapolis is where I continue to work and design all the pieces for the PDC. In the last years we’ve expanded the studio to include a small group of sewers in Lima, Peru. This collaboration has been a powerful one. It’s not fast, inexpensive, nor easy to work in Peru, but it is meaningful. The history of craft is threaded throughout the Peruvian culture and I’m learning so much from working with Carmen, Liz, Veronica & Kristine… and we’re only just getting started.
It's so cool that your mother also made heirloom toys. How precious to think of this skill being passed down. Do you find yourself asking her for advice still?
Working with and along side my mom is the best. Just this week she came to the studio to help me hand dye a few pieces for the upcoming collection, and having her eye and technical know how, not to mention her wit and humour, make the day so fun. She continues to teach me so much, but now it feels like we’re both learning from each other, both in the studio and in life. I can’t understate what my mom means to me- she’s my foundation. I wouldn’t be at all who I am today without her.
Obviously over recent years you have had to expand your production a little. I know you started working with a small sewing group in Peru. Tell us a little bit about the women you work with there, I bet they love making your pieces!
I started working with this amazing sewing group; largely comprised of hearing impaired women who find it very hard to get work or be paid fairly in Peru, in 2016. It grew out of my close relationship with Anna from Misha & Puff and our desire to collaborate on pieces and my need to have reliable sewers to meet the demands of this growing business. Traveling to Peru and working along side these women was profound. They’re such skilled craftspeople and it was fun to see how quickly they picked up the techniques I use to make my designs. I don’t speak Spanish and many of these women don’t sign but we made our own ways of communicating- I left feeling deeply connected to them and proud of how and by whom each of these objects is made by.
If you had to describe your brand in 3 words what would they be?
FOR NOW & FOREVER
What’s inspiring you at the minute?
This minute and forever- vintage toys inspire me. There is so much craft and genius in old Steiffs or Schoenhuts, but the work of Renate Muller is something else entirely. She used unexpected materials (burlap and leather) to create therapy toys that engaged kids tacitly and physically. They’re really special- it’s not what I do, but I try to channel when I think about how objects feel in the hand- she’s an utter inspiration to me.
As a mother of two how do you balance motherhood and having your own business?
As my kids age this keeps changing. It’s a balancing act, and a messy one at that, but we’re always reinventing ourselves right?! I feel like my kids keep unfolding and we keep surprising each other with who we are and who we’re all becoming. I’m not really sure what my answer is here, but I guess it’s that my kids keep me present in my life, and that helps me in my business. They inspire me and keep me centred and grounded when things feel hard and stressful in the studio. Both my husband and I are self-employed as artists and we are both equally in it with the kids. There is no job that governors our schedule, we’re able to look at each day, what it holds for everyone in the house and make a plan to get it all done. It’s fluid and hard and awesome and fill in a million other adjectives but it wouldn’t have it any other way.
What are your favourite family traditions?
I love ritual. I feel like its the little and big things we do together that bind our family and tie us together in memorable and wholehearted ways. My favourite is so simple and not at all unique, but every night at dinner we go around the table and each name the “best part and worst part” of our days. Sometimes it’s hard to name a best, sometimes its hard to name a worst… but having to call it out, reflect about how the day went down, and share it with each other opens up all sorts of way to talk to each other.
What’s your favourite kids book?
Bruno Munari is forever a favourite around our house. His books are funny and unexpected art objects for kids. Many of the pages are different sizes to cover and revel new scenes- They make my little one laugh and inspire my older child to make books in different ways. These are two of our favourites: the Birthday Present and Animals For Sale.
Lastly I’d love to hear some of your favourite other small brands?
I think I’m a real sickerly for craft- so my favourite brands are those where the integrity of what they do is held up by the history of craft they’re inspired by. I love:
Misha and Puff (Perfect hand-knits)
Corrraini Book Publisher (Books)
Folk Fibers (Quilts)
Red Creek Handmade (Kids clothing)
David Neale (Jewelry)
Wovenplay (Dress up)
and so many other makers who may not have a brand but do this because they love it and can’t imagine their life without making…
Thanks so much to Jen for sharing!!