Robert Tonner is “one of the most influential doll designers of all time,” says Pat Henry, publisher of Fashion Doll Quarterly magazine and a book about Tonner.
Robert Tonner’s designs set the industry standard
By Steve Israel
Photos by Michael Bloom
ROBERT TONNER'S DESIGNS SET THE DOLLMAKER"S LONG, improbable journey to Paris’ Louvre Museum and Hollywood’s “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” films starts in the small Midwestern farming town of Bluffton, Ind.
That’s where Kingston’s Robert Tonner was the shy son of a mother who was so sick for so long – from encephalitis, sleeping sickness and then cancer – she literally spent years in bed. Tonner’s father, who designed truck bodies, had to pay so much for his wife’s medicine – $125 per week on his $100-per-week salary – that he would move his family from one home to another because he could never afford the mortgage payments.
Robert Tonner escaped this bleak world of the 1950s and ’60s by doing the one thing he knew he could do since he was 3 years old: draw, especially the immaculately detailed, colorful superheroes such as Superman, who took him further away from that gray world.
“I would literally draw for hours and hours,” he says in his wood-paneled office in Kingston, surrounded by glass-encased shelves of the fruits of that drawing, his dolls, from his world-renowned, multimillion-dollar Tonner Doll Co.
Robert Tonner would draw, design and sculpt his way to become “one of the most influential doll designers of all time,” according to Pat Henry, publisher of Fashion Doll Quarterly magazine and a book about Tonner.
Not only have his dolls been displayed in the Louvre – the home of the Mona Lisa – his exquisite, immaculately proportioned designs have earned him the exclusive rights to bring Harry Potter, Superman, Spider-Man and a slew of other film and comic book characters to doll-like life around the world.
They’ve also earned him the praise of fellow doll designers who say he’s elevated doll making, and marketing, to an art.
“He’s like Steve Jobs; he has that innovative spirit,” says Helen Kish, head of a doll-collector business, Denver’s Kish and Co., who describes Tonner’s dolls as “objects of beauty.’
“He’s not only a fantastic sculptor and awesome clothing designer, he’s also a great businessman. He has his pulse on what people need, and he’s right there to give it to them, even if they don’t know it yet.”
Tonner’s dolls, priced from about $60 to $400, may bring the meticulously real world of glamour, fashion and fantasy to millions, but the story of the man who dreams them, designs them, draws them, sculpts them and sells them is grounded in a harsh reality.
So sure, as a chubby little boy who even put a towel on his shoulders to make believe he could fly like Superman, Tonner dreamed of superheroes with superpowers. But his own life often seemed like the stuff of a bleak Dickens novel. Tonner was so poor that the best childhood gift he ever received was a stack of blank newsprint on which he could draw.
His other thrill seems old-fashioned in these instant-gratification days when kids take to Twitter, Flickr and YouTube as naturally as they once played with dolls. On those rare days when Tonner’s mother was well enough to get out of bed, she showed Robert how to use the family’s Singer sewing machine. It wasn’t long before he was creating designs for clothes that again took him away from his grim reality. He still marvels at his first design come true: an Easter dress for his sister.
“It was a whole thing where you have nothing, and then all of a sudden, you have something,” says Tonner, 61, who now actually embraces Twitter, Flickr and YouTube to sell his dolls.
So it would seem logical that Tonner would use his drawing, sewing and designing skills to escape Bluffton, especially because the “painfully shy” boy discovered he was gay at a time and in a place no one mentioned – let alone acknowledged – such a thing.
“You got the impression nothing was worse,” Tonner says. “You got the idea your core was flawed.”
But as for embarking on a life of art right after high school?
Who did that in Bluffton, Ind.?
Everyone there, says Tonner, had something to do with farming or the town’s hospital.
Besides, magazines that might have inspired Tonner – such as Glamour or Vogue – were practically unheard of in Bluffton in the ’60s.
“Just Corn (Corn and Soybean Digest) magazine and American Tractor,” he says.
So Tonner decided to study medicine, which he did at colleges in Indiana, Louisiana and Colorado, even though his heart wasn’t in it.
But when three friends moved to New York City and invited him to join them, Tonner jumped at the idea, even though it meant working in a factory in New Jersey, doing something far removed from the fashion industry that would embrace him: stuffing garbage bags into boxes.
Then, one summer’s day in 1973, he found himself in Greenwich Village, walking past one of the great art schools in the world: Parsons School of Design. Amazingly, its summer session was offering a course in drawing and sewing, the prerequisite for fashion design.
Robert Tonner has built his doll empire from the ground up. From a background of poverty, Tonner has emerged as head of the multimillion-dollar Tonner Doll Co. and is considered one of the most influential doll designers of all time.
ALL DOLLED UP
A sampling of some of Tonner's creations from Wilde Imagination’s Imperium Park, his newest line.
Mortimer (the basic doll)
Thea and Phin from the Steampunk series
Evangeline Ghastly Dead Silent and Mortimer from the same collection
Hundreds of dolls are on display at Tonner’s retail store on Hurley Avenue in Kingston.
Tonner was so good at what he’d already been doing that he won a scholarship for the fall semester.
By 1976, he ended up with one of the top fashion designers in the world, Bill Blass, thanks to a model who suggested he apply for a job. But he was still shy enough – “very, very, devilishly shy,” says Kish – that when he met with Blass’ lawyer to draw up a contract, he only managed to ask for the relatively paltry yearly salary of $25,000 – still enough to pay for his $125-per-month five-floor walk-up apartment between 21st and 22nd streets on the East Side of Manhattan.
But this is how the withdrawn Midwestern kid began to expose himself to the world. When Blass sent him to Paris and London to check out the latest fashions and fabrics, Tonner, who says he’d “barely stayed at Holiday Inns,” marveled at something as simple as a hotel room mini bar.
“I took all the candy, all the peanuts, and then they’d fill it up again,” he says, his voice still tinged with wonder, even after some 30 years.
Not only was Tonner designing everything from down jackets to women’s sportswear, but he was also learning to sculpt his designs. And then, just as his life changed when he’d walked past Parsons, it changed again when, in the early 1980s, he walked through one of the world’s ultimate toy shops, FAO Schwarz.
He saw a display of European-designed Sasha dolls, with their trademark mitt hands and bodies that were, he says “so beautifully proportioned.”
When he decided to try his hand at sculpting his own dolls, he realized that “all my interests were coming together.”
He began collecting dolls, reading about the history of dolls and experimenting with material and form to create his own dolls – papier maché first, then dipped in peach-colored paint for a real look. Every night, after working 12-hour days as a designer, he’d work on those dolls.
“I was obsessive about it,” he says, “like drawing.”
Finally, frustrated that he couldn’t be creative in the supposedly creative business of fashion design – not being able to design a skirt in the perfect color because the buyer said it wouldn’t sell – Tonner decided to give his all to doll making.
His career – and life – changed forever in the late ’80s when he bought a house in the Hudson Valley spot where his friends had a home: the postcard-pretty Ulster County hamlet of Stone Ridge, where hipster stars such as Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz now live.
That’s where, instead of the flat fields of Indiana, there were trees, streams and a waterfall – in his backyard. That’s also where he met the man who would become his husband, his partner of 27 years, Realtor Harris Safier.
As Tonner grew comfortable with his new surroundings, and himself, he also grew as a doll maker, experimenting with material such as porcelain or plastic, and with the types of dolls he would sculpt: fashion dolls such as Betsy McCall, who represented a “change from the chubby infant to a thinner young girl,” Tonner says on one of the many videos on his web site.
He also changed how the dolls were sold and manufactured, at first enlisting his sister-in-law to sew the hip fashions this former Bill Blass designer designed, then enlisting his brother-in-law to create an assembly line. When he found an overseas manufacturer who could produce his dolls at, say $12 per figure, instead of the $23 it cost him for parts alone, Tonner Doll Co. really took off. He grew so successful that in 2007 he was able to buy one of America’s oldest doll companies, Effanbee, which made the porcelain Little Orphan Annie, Patsy and Brenda Starr dolls. He not only won the exclusive rights to make what Pat Henry calls his “ridiculously perfect” dolls for Hollywood blockbusters such as the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series, but he also acquired the right to design perennially selling dolls for such timeless movies as “Gone With the Wind.” And as every new media technology emerged – from YouTube to Twitter – Tonner was always the first in the industry to use them to publicize and sell his dolls.
But for all his success – enabling him to donate to local causes such as Kingston hospitals and the LGBTQ Community Center – he’s never lost that little shy boy obsession with creating something from nothing. Even though he has a staff of about 20, Tonner still retreats to a tiny 8-by-10-foot room in Tonner Doll headquarters to sculpt his latest designs. It’s there, near an old Singer sewing machine, that he was recently sculpting an anatomically perfect version of a character that remains one of his all-time favorites: Superman.