Behind the Rainbow Curtain: An Interview with Lisa Frank's Head Designer Sarah Heyward

Like any warm-blooded child of the ’80s and ’90s, I have a serious Lisa Frank obsession. Rather than seek help for this obvious and occasionally troublesome addiction, I devote myself to scouring eBay and Etsy for vintage stickers (easy), bedding (harder), and apparel (nearly impossible). A particular pack of Lisa Frank playing cards I remembered from my youth had me Google imaging for hours until finally I came across a lone post on the Lisa Frank Facebook page. One borderline-psychotic email led to another, and soon I found myself in touch with the owner of a pack of the very cards I was coveting.

The Coveted Lisa Frank Playing Cards

I bought the cards from her, of course, but in talking to her I discovered that what I really wanted was to get to know the woman herself: her name is Rondi Kutz and she was the head designer for Lisa Frank from 1987-2002 (a.k.a. the golden years). Rondi was kind enough to let me interview her about what it was like to work for the woman who influenced an entire generation of girls. Without further ado, I present pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about Lisa Frank.

Hi Rondi! Thank you so much for letting me interview you. Let’s jump right in. How did you first get involved with Lisa Frank?

In 1987, I answered an ad for an artist job that was posted in the Phoenix paper. I had no idea who had posted it and when they requested an interview I found out it was Lisa Frank. I still had no idea who Lisa Frank was. But when I went through the front doors of her studio and walked into a little show room with all of the products, I knew that I was home. Luckily I got the job!

What was your journey within the Lisa Frank company?

When I started my title was simply artist. I started out doing concepts for designs with markers. I also did some illustration and had to learn how to airbrush. All of the art  back then was done by airbrush, although they did have one computer that the creative director was learning to use. Then the other artists learned to create the airbrushed ‘look’ art and started to do all of the illustrations on the computer by 1988-89. I had no patience for the computer, so continued to do concepts as marker renderings, which then went to the computer illustrators to clean up and illustrate.

This is my kind of history lesson! What was your role later in the 90s?

As the company grew I became more involved with the product development and started to design and develop all of the craft kits. They also discovered I had a knack for writing, so I named all the products, wrote all the stories for the characters and wrote all the material for the Lisa Frank magazine. I wrote copy for ads and even TV commercials. I also worked with the art director on photo shoots (for the magazine, packaging and ads) doing wardrobe and styling. It was such a blast! My title ended up as Senior Designer/Product Development Group Leader.

What was it like working for Lisa Frank herself?

It was exciting and exhausting! Lisa is a tiny ball of energy, on the go and in full creative mode at all times. I worked closely with her the first several years I was there until she had her kids. After that  she wasn’t in the office much, choosing to work most of the time from home.

Did you have any idea when you were first working there that your designs would be such a hit?

No, not really. When I started working at Lisa Frank, she had already made a pretty big name for herself in the sticker industry. It was really just when I started in 1987 that she started doing school supplies, which of course included the famous Trapper Keepers. This really launched the brand into a whole new market and it was a hit. It just kept growing from there.

Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper

What are some of the coolest designs/merchandise you can remember working on?

Well, all of the character designs were always fun to work on and probably my favorite part of my job. One of the very first craft kits was Bead Mania, which was the first craft kit I ever worked on. It was really a learning experience. I even got to go to Hong Kong and work on it, which was pretty cool.

Bead Mania

What was the best part of working for Lisa Frank?

It was so great being a part of something that grew so big and experiencing it from almost the beginning. The experience afforded me a lot of exciting opportunities, like going to Hong Kong, flying to meetings across the country in Lisa’s private jet, hosting fashion shows at the mall, working with models on photo shoots and TV commercials (including Mila Kunis when she was twelve years old), and meeting celebrities that would be involved in fundraisers.

And the most challenging part?

The most challenging part was the incredible pace at which we had to work. Getting ready for big meetings would require lots of overtime and the patience for enduring revision after revision after revision. Lisa is fanatical about detail. But that is what makes her art so extraordinary.

Is there any one iconic design you can point to and say, I designed that? Or was it more of a collaborative effort?

The artwork was a collaborative effort, but it all began with me putting it on paper as a marker rendering. The concepts came from Lisa, James (her husband) or me, so I can say that some of the characters were my idea and original design. But by the time it went to an illustrator to redraw it, adding detail, then to the computer artist who rendered it on the computer (which entailed hundreds of hours of work), it had many artists’ stamps on it.

What was the work environment like physically? Were the walls decorated with Lisa Frank designs?

The first Lisa Frank studio where I started was in an old house near downtown Tucson. It wasn’t fancy, but it was really cool. Colors everywhere. Eventually, the company moved to its mega huge corporate headquarters. Talk about cool! The building was unbelievable, inside and out. Huge stars, hearts and music notes in rainbow colors around the outside of the building. The artists’ area inside was state of the art. All windows, hardwood floors, open duct work in rainbow colors and huge character statues all over. It really did/does match the fun and colors of the brand.

What would you say were the most popular items when you worked there?

Well, anything with unicorns, kittens, puppies, or horses were always popular. As far as products, it kind of varied over the years. When I first started it was stickers, then the school folders/Trapper Keepers, then the crafts got really big for a while. Oh, yeah, the hand painted rainbow shoes. Guess what… I was the one who painted them! I WAS Panda Painter. But I have a feeling that stickers always were and still are her most popular product.

Panda Painter

What’s your favorite Lisa Frank character or design?

I think it would have to be the Punk Poodle. It was one of the first designs that I worked on. It also looked just like my parent’s dog, Mitzy – minus the rainbow hair, earrings, sunglasses and leather jacket.

I have to ask, was Lisa’s personal jet decorated in a Lisa Frank style? Did she dress in Lisa Frank colors? How much does the person match the brand?

Lisa IS her brand! She lives, breathes, and quite possibly eats colors. Her house was/is purple. She wears the most awesome shoes – usually with super platforms – and unique designer clothes. She is teeny tiny, with a personality about a million times bigger than she is physically. Lisa radiates creativity along with extreme business savvy. She is one sharp and colorful cookie!

Anything you want to add?

I just want to thank Lisa Frank! It truly was an amazing experience.

Thank you so much, Rondi! This was the interview of a lifetime for me. And I also want to thank you for helping to influence the taste, creativity, and passion (not to mention bedroom decor) of so many girls like me. We love you!

Images via cheerall.com, picasaweb.google.com, etsy.com, ghostofthedoll.co.uk, lisafrankonly.tumblr.com, etsy.com, lisafrankparty.tumblr.com

comments

Please help us maintain positive conversations by refraining from posting spam, advertisements, and links to other websites or blogs. we reserve the right to remove your comment if it does not adhere to these guidelines. thanks! post a comment.

  1. I’m 24, and I’ll never stop being an obsessed fan & collector, Lisa!! This interview is amazing. I so wish I could work for the company, having all that awesome fun and coming up with ideas and helping to create everything Lisa Frank…& getting to work with Lisa herself! Eee!! What an exciting job that sounds like. Private jet?! Purple house? Platform shoes, unique clothes? OMG, Lisa is SOOOOO my type of person!! XD

    You can totally tell that Lisa is passionate, imaginative, and detail-oriented! I simply must visit the incredible LF HQ. o__o Also…her favorite character is the punk Poodle?! SWEEEET!!! =D I LOVE that dog, and have him/her on a shirt (not sure whether it’s a male or female, to be quite honest!) Maybe I should ponder it and come up with my own name for him/her.

  2. Wow! From ages 6 to 10 Lisa Frank was my LIFE, if walmart sold it, I had it. To this day a keychain I made using the “Bead Mania” beads still hangs off of my dad’s rearview mirror..good memories.

  3. I HAD THOSE PLAYING CARDS. wow, a flood of very colorful memories just entered my mind. thank you.

  4. Loved this! My sisters and I were OBSESSED with Lisa Frank! (especially all the craft stuff) I am now a grown-up/ designer/illustrator. I just want to say that many things have influenced me as an artist, but I often refuse to tone down my more colorful work simply based on the motto “If Lisa Frank could do it. Why shouldn’t I?”

  5. “anything with unicorns, kittens, puppies, or horses were always popular”

    STILL ARE!!!! (Im 31)

  6. Lisa frank was my idol as a kid. I coveted my Lisa Frank stationary only using it to write really important mail. I would’ve died to see the inside of corporate headquarters! It sounds amazing!

  7. I LOVE Lisa Frank!! I still have my collection of Lisa Frank’s folders, envelopes, rules, stationary set, and of course tons of stickers. I keep all of my Lisa Frank treasures in my Lisa Frank sneaker box :)

  8. this is so awesome. lisa was responsible for all of my favorite grade school lunch boxes and folders.

HelloGiggles Podcast