“They’re so proper,” Chen Reichert says. “They were just asking for it.”
Reichert is speaking, of all things, about postcards. After a year of teaching English in Japan, Reichert came back to the States in 2006 with a tall stack of them, which she started defacing for fun. Into each street scene or forest or seascape, she would paint a white-and-blue, Japanese pop art-influenced, googly-eyed “robot tourist” named Boto. By late 2007, Reichert was selling the postcards at First Friday events and craft shows and on Etsy, and Botodesigns was alive and kicking.
By the following year, it had become a big-enough business that she could quit her job at a travel agency and focus on Boto full-time. Revise that: “Not big enough that I could quit my job,” she says. “I just really hated my job.” So she did quit, and she survived it, and the business did too.
In the years since, Botodesigns has branched out from postcards to t-shirts, dolls, wall art, buttons and tote bags, and the Boto cast of characters has grown in kind, now including a lady, an octopus and an owl, as well as a giant green plant monster named Planto. Reichert has taken the business on the road to craft shows all over the country, and it’s supported her for five years now, with just the occasional odd job added to the mix to help cover student loans and the like.
Still, where we might see a successful small business and entrepreneurial intelligence, Reichert sees “so many mistakes over five years.” She says the business got too big in scope—too diffuse, too sprawling. She was mistaken, she thinks, to believe that one person could keep track of it all. “Botodesigns was the baby steps,” she says, and now, she’s ready to walk.
In this case, moving forward means drawing from the past—literally. Last summer, as a gift for her father-in-law Dean Malissa, a professional George Washington portrayer, Reichert illustrated and handmade a stuffed Washington doll. And in that doll was the kernel of a new business.
Over the next couple of months, Reichert used her free moments away from Botodesigns to tweak that first doll design, put together a website and develop a few other “stuffy historical figures.” Malissa channeled his enthusiasm for the doll and for Mr. Washington to help secure a sizable order from the gift shop at Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Museum in Virginia, where he works. By October, with capital and confidence, Late Greats was up and running.
The website launched with four dolls for sale—George Washington, Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin (Frederick Douglass has since been added to the collection)—and each one has a quirky pop-art feel, not entirely unlike the one Reichert built Botodesigns around. This time, though, instead of technology and cultural aesthetics, she’s riffing on artifact and history. The illustrations are stripped-down, colorful, cartoony and…slightly funny. In the way a nose points or a pair of glasses sits or a set of eyebrows set, these serious historical figures are portrayed not quite seriously.
Reichert has honed her process to a degree that she feels she was never able to reach with Botodesigns. The dolls have all been through different designs, different shapes, different sizes, different materials, illustrated backs, plain backs, patterned backs, but Reichert’s got it down now. “Just from that one order [from the Mount Vernon Estate], I learned everything,” she says.
She can make three or four dolls an hour, when she’s really going—cutting, sewing, stuffing, labeling. Each doll comes with a card of trivia about the figure—did you know that Washington’s favorite food was ice cream? Or that Jefferson once received, as a gift, a pair of bear cubs?—and she does those herself, too. At that speed, she’s able to keep costs reasonable, both for herself and her customers. (Each handmade, artisanal 12” doll retails for $28.)
That do-it-herself ethic leads Reichert to spending up-to-12-hour workdays in her East Rock apartment crafting dolls from her existing collection, drawing and designing upcoming ones (I saw illustrations for Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla, Frida Kahlo and Coco Chanel, among others), researching costumes and trivia.
Part of each day is spent filling orders from existing Botodesigns stock, too. It underscores the risk Reichert’s taking as she phases out the living she’s known for the past five years and replaces it with a whole new venture.
“It’s scary,” she says, but it’s clear she’s got the character, and characters, to make it through.
by Chen Reichert
Written by Jonathan McNicol. Photograph courtesy of Chen Reichert.