There’s something about a teddy bear. Something timeless, something wise, something loveable. Being dragged here, there and everywhere, a teddy bear can become a child’s trusted pal – and later a sweet source of nostalgia for adults.
Jennifer Murphy, owner and designer of Polka Dot Club, knows this. As a second-generation teddy bear maker, she uses natural materials and time-trusted techniques to make heritage toys meant to be passed down – “heirlooms for now and forever,” as she says.
We chatted with Jennifer to hear the history of Polka Dot Club and her take on why the teddy bear stands the test of time.
Tell us about the beginning days of Polka Dot Club – when and why PDC start? And where did the name come from?
I’ve been making mohair teddy bears and animals since I was 11 years old. My mom is also a teddy bear maker and I traveled all over the country with her as a child selling her bears and in time selling mine alongside her. It was an amazing way to grow up and set the foundation of entrepreneurship, a love of making and proficiency in sewing that got me where I am today.
After making teddy bears and detailed stuffed animals for adult collectors around the world for years as jmurphybears, I changed my focus after having my own children. I wanted my practice and product to be centered around play and make toys that were actually intended for children. My son was three and my daughter was still a baby when I launched the Polka Dot Club in 2012.
When thinking about what to name my new business I wanted something that pointed to the past but felt relevant to today. I loved the idea of membership cards, decoder rings and subscriptions for kids in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. The magic of belonging to something and the way it pointed to a time when imaginative play animated objects seemed the right fit.
What toy do you remember most from your childhood? Do you still have it?
My mom made me a teddy bear, Edison. He was made out of an old mohair coat lining and he had a music box in his back. I loved that bear – I took him everywhere with me, past an age that it was probably appropriate for me to be carrying around a teddy bear, but I just didn’t care. Now he’s at my parents’ house and my kids play with him there.
In your opinion, what is it about a teddy bear that so many kids (and adults!) gravitate towards? We’ve all had them and all loved them.
I think there is something magical about teddy bears and other animal toys. Dolls are a person and that relationship is somewhat fixed within our notions of other people, but a teddy bear can be imbued with all sorts of powers – they can be a peer, something to care for, something magical…anything.
You’re committed to safe toys that’ll last for generations. What does this mean, exactly, and how can parents keep their toys safer for their kiddos?
Mohair teddy bears that are over 100 years old still look amazing. I love how when you make something well and with materials made to last (natural fibers are amazing that way) they become aged in a beautiful way instead of something set for the trash heap. I’m incredibly cognizant about how much we consume. I’m all for having one really nice thing instead of 20 objects that were made in questionable ways, by people not being paid or treated ethically, and then shipped halfway around the world. By keeping production small, knowing who and how my pieces are made, choosing all the materials and overseeing all production I know what I’m putting out into the world. That feels right. That feels like the kind of world I want to live and the example I want to set for my kids.
The last step is the legal bits. I send all pieces intended for babies and kids under three to a lab to be tested. All the pieces I make are labeled with appropriate age recommendations which note roughly when a child is developmentally ready to engage with it.
You have two small children. How do they influence your work?
As any parent can tell you, my kids are everything. My son is seven and my daughter is four. Both my husband and I are self-employed so we have the flexibility in our life to make being with our kids a priority. Just yesterday we were able to take the afternoon off to see my son perform in a concert that was midday. I imagine how hard that is for other families that work. It’s a struggle in a lot of other ways, but we’ve always made working for ourselves a priority so that family can always come first.
All that said, my kids don’t show up on my social media all that much. I like to keep all that to myself – all the outings, projects, crafts and fun. That stuff is just for us. It’s the stuff that makes up a life and fills me up each day so when I can get back to work I have so much more to give it.
What’s your process while designing? Any rituals – music, time of day, coffee?
Coffee. Exercise. Otherwise my brain goes dark and I can’t sleep at night, but that’s the answer for another question altogether! More coffee.
I usually get into the studio by 9:15 and then it’s a lot of business; all the emails, packing of boxes, bookkeeping, invoicing and day-to-day running of a business is all me. It’s not glamorous, but it’s all part of keeping everything running. But on really good days it’s just me. The house is quiet. I may put on music, but likely it’s just a big mess on the table with lots of scraps from patterns being cut and drafted and redrafted until it’s just right. I really love those days.
You live in cold, hearty, midwestern metropolis Minneapolis. How does that affect what you make, how you make your products and what you’re inspired by?
I love where I live. I have lots of friends on the coasts and I’ve split my time between here and New York City while my husband was there for a few years, but this is my home. I wasn’t born here; I chose it. It’s the pace, the cost, the seasons, the fact that my kids can go to a great public school, we live near parks and the Mississippi river…It’s big enough and small enough all at once.
I’m not sure it’s inspired how or what I make, but where I live creates the perimeters around my days. There is an ease to living here (except the cold of course), but I think it’s the simplicity of it that’s always been appealing. Midwesterners are humble, self-deprecating, kind and open. All of those things leave me open to be creative, and that’s pretty special.
What’s next for Polka Dot Club? You know those really special days I mentioned earlier, when I get to design new pieces? Well that happened this week, and let me just say – the new pieces for this fall/winter are shaping up to be pretty darn special. I can’t wait.
And don't forget to check out our special collection of Polka Dot Club bears here.
Written by Megan McCarty
Photos courtesy of Polka Dot Club