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By day, she’s sewing plush carrots, and by night, well, she’s probably still sewing plush carrots, because a little over two years ago, Steff Bomb (born Stephanie Baum) managed to make a living in the much-sensationalized handmade industry. Of course, it took sleepless nights, “$20 in my bank account” financial risks, and a couple of years peddling organics at Whole Foods before she became sustainable. But now, she’s joined the ranks of Etsy stardom, teamed up with Threadless, and carved out a place in the hearts of nerds everywhere.
Coming up on her sixth Chicago Renegade this Saturday and Sunday, The A.V. Club sat down with Steff Bomb to talk about crafting full-time, the growing appeal of mass production, and America’s obsession with the plushie-allstars of Uglydoll.
The A.V. Club: How’d you start out?
Steff Bomb: When I was 21, I went on this kick of trying to find my niche, which wasn’t so much a “coming of age tale” as it was just that I was bored and all of my friends were doing shit. So, I tried painting, and I was terrible at it. Crocheting: terrible at it. Paper crafts: not so bad. But, every month, I would have something different. And I read an article about a plush show in some tiny zine and I was like, “That’s what I wanna do!” And from that point on, I fell in love with it.
AVC: That graffiti-artist asparagus was kind of your first big entrance on the toy-making scene, yeah?
SB: Yes. Mr. Lertchman, named after my friend John Lertch, was an asparagus with fangs that I handmade back when this whole thing was more of a hobby than a full-time business. I was getting more and more orders from people and didn't know how to handle the workload, which is crazy to think about now, considering I have to make 20 times as many toys or more per day than I did back then. I was such a wuss. Coincidentally, around the same time, I was approached by ESC Toys about mass production. After selling everything I own, working nonstop, and borrowing the remainder of the money [I needed] from a friend, I was able to afford to mass produce 300, 10-inch spray-painting plush asparagus. Erick Scarecrow, who runs ESC Toys, is a really great fella. I guess you can call him the middleman between me and whatever factory made them all. I don’t think I will ever be able to afford to do that again, but I am grateful for the opportunity because it gave me the chance to pursue the life every girl dreams of... sewing for 20 hours a day next to my cat while I watch Doctor Who on Netflix.
AVC: How expensive was it to do that first run?
SB: It was 4,000-something dollars, but it was an opportunity to actually have a career in art even though I’m not trained for it. So I saw that door opened, and I worked 300 percent towards it. I was like, “You know, it’s just money, and if you lose, it’ll be a fun experience to have.” But, that led to having my first art show, having a toy release party, having stores know who I am, and moving to Chicago—you know, it was just the one leap that led to this whole experience.
AVC: Why’d you choose to leave Philly for Chicago?
SB: In Philadelphia I got lucky, because I was the only person making [plush], so it got recognized, but there was really no room to grow, where as here, there’s Renegade, there’s Shawnimals, and a whole bunch of other people doing “the craft life.” I don’t think I would be able to do this in a different time and place. Coming here when I did helped me be like, “This is my business, I do this full-time now,” you know, it’s not just a hobby.
AVC: How have the local DIY and crafting scenes played into all of this?
SB: So much. If Chicago wasn’t so DIY oriented, I never would have been able to do this. There were no craft fairs in Philadelphia. I mean, there’s a few, but they’re all just high-end jewelry and wicker bowls. I would sell at the punk rock flea market, but they wanted it to be more for records and old band shirts—stuff like that, so they would make crafters apply a month after applications were open. But, that was the only thing I did that was even close to being a craft fair. So coming here, I was like, “Holy shit!” Renegade knew who I was already, Rotofugi knew who I was already, and in Philly no one knew who I was. In Philly I made turds, so they’d be like, “Oh, you’re that turd girl,” and when I came here people were like, “You’re Steff Bomb! You make the food!”
AVC: What’s a typical workday like?
SB: I’ll always make breakfast first—because breakfast is the most important meal of the day—get a cup of coffee, and check my emails. Then I start sewing. And if it’s a typical workday, I probably won’t even take a shower, because if I shower, then I’ll want to go out. So this is actually my pro-tip for staying in and being motivated: If you’re really gross, you’ll sit inside and work. But, that’s really my day. I’ll wake up at 8 or 9 and I’ll work until 1 or 2 a.m. I mean that’s it, it’s so boring. I could go into detail like, “During the day I’ll listen to music and then when it’s night time I’ll put on Netflix!” But, basically, it’s just that I work straight through, sleep for a few hours, and do it again.
AVC: Do you work every day?
SB: I got tendonitis last year, so I’ve been better about taking days off. Now on weekends I’ll work during the day and go out for dinner at night, but I work every day.
AVC: Did that totally freak you out, getting tendonitis?
SB: I had a nervous breakdown. I was like, “My life is over. I don’t know what’s going on with my hand.” It was the worst timing, too. I was doing a signing, and I was making stuff for that and my hand just stopped working. I mean, tell-tale signs of tendonitis: shooting pains in my thumb, and my right hand totally pooped out. I couldn’t even hold a fork.
AVC: So you’re kind of at maximum production right now, like, there’s only so many plush hamburgers a girl can make in a day. How do you plan to grow from here?
SB: I’ve been talking about how I want an intern for about a year now. I contacted SAIC, and they sent me a four-page form just to post something about an open position, and I just don’t have time. So, if you know anyone who wants to be an intern that knows how to sew: I’m hiring! I’m nice!
AVC: Would you ever consider not hand-making them?
SB: Oh my God, yeah, are you kidding me? If someone was like, “I’m gonna pay for you to get this mass produced,” I’d be like, “Yes please, I love eating and paying my bills. That’s cool.” There’d have to be some serious quality control, but all that would do is free up my time to make new stuff, which would be so awesome. I wouldn’t stop sewing; I wouldn’t just sit on my ivory plush tower and not work.
AVC: Speaking of mass production, how do you think the whole Uglydoll phenomena has affected the designer toy industry?
SB: It’s funny that you ask that, because most people think it’s a bad thing. Most people are like, “They’re sellouts, they’re not creative,” but I—and I’ve actually had this discussion with Shawnimals Shawn—think it’s a great thing. I mean, they did it all on their own. Uglydoll started out as this little thing, and it just expanded from there. There’s nothing about it that’s wrong, they’re doing everything right, and it’s only helping me. It’s made people more aware of plush, and that’s cool. I mean, when the president’s daughter had an Uglydoll, that was great, because that made people want to buy plush.
AVC: Why do people think the Uglydoll craze is such a bad thing?
SB: People are just naysayers: “They’re mass produced, that sucks for you.” But it’s like, “No it doesn’t, that’s just awesome for them.” What are you talking about, that sucks for me? People have that same mentality about bands selling out. I get that some bands are put together by a label, or it’s a Mickey Mouse Club kind of thing, but people don’t realize that I work really hard and that I barely make anything. I do it because I love it, but I can barely pay my rent. People view success as bad, and I don’t know why; it doesn’t make any sense to me.
AVC: Since you’ve sort of made a living in art without schooling, does that undermine the value of art school for you?
SB: Well, I went to community college for one class, and the teacher had us draw some lamp on a table. It was so stupid. But I drew it on a tiny corner of a giant pad and I was like, “I’m done!” and the professor got so mad. He was like, “You just draw what you want, not what’s really there. You’re never going to make anything of yourself in the world of art!” You know, just really let me have it, so I quit. But art school would have been really awesome to go to if I had stuck it out, then I probably could have had a real job, because, you know, health insurance is nice. I mean, for a long time, I was working at a grocery store 10 to close. But, I do think that overall talent and motivation, and having passion for something shines through more than having a degree. Like, believing in yourself, that kind of shit. If you love something, just say, “Fuck it” and do it, ’cause it kind of happens to work out for some reason.
AVC: How’s doing craft shows and talking with strangers all day?
SB: Craft shows are my favorite. People compliment you all day, you make money, and you’re surrounded by people that love what they do just as much as you do. It’s one of my favorite things every year. I mean, I used to be really shy about my work. People would come up and be like, “This is great!” and I’d be like, “No, it’s not.” But after a while, you start realizing that just because you see the flaws, it’s not as crumby as you think.
AVC: How many do you participate in each year?
SB: It really depends on how many I can afford. I do more winter ones than summer ones, because I have more money in the winter to spend on application fees. So I’ll have my Christmas money, but then sales die. So that [money] will only take me so far with rent and bills, but all the craft fair applications start happening in March or April when there’s no money. So I really have to pick and choose which ones I can afford. But, I do Pitchfork every year, DIY Trunk Show, and I’ve applied to Renegade every year, which luckily, they’ve let me in every time.
AVC: Really? How competitive is it to get a table at Renegade?
SB: Tens of thousands of people apply every year. It’s the most popular craft fair nationally. And actually, this is their first year they’ve had one in London, which I’d kill to do, but people fly in from all over the world for it. Even winning Chicago Reader’s Best Indie Crafter, I still thought I wasn’t going to get in. I’d never count on it.
AVC: Do you have any side projects in the works? Like your Tee-shark costume for Threadless, or the Slingshot Dakota kickstarter promotion?
SB: I try to schedule that kind of stuff for the beginning and middle of the year. Once the holiday season starts, all I can do is work on Etsy orders, wholesale orders, and craft fairs. It gets to be a bit chaotic as soon as it hits November, and being just one person, taking on anything else would be berserker. My hands would probably fall off, and I’d be pretty bummed if that happened. I love getting hired to do those kinds of projects, though. I love making my regular stuff, but it’s always nice to get to do something new and different. Plus, I love a good challenge.