In the 1980s and ’90s, Lisa Frank filled the world with rainbows and unicorns through her colorful designs. And after starting her business from an early age, the entrepreneur ultimately built up a multi-million-dollar empire. However, while certain aspects of Frank’s neon world were once shrouded in mystery, the artist’s fans have finally been able to catch a rare glimpse inside one seldom-seen factory.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Frank grew up to be creative, though, as the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, native had an art-collector father. She would go on to study art, too, at the University of Arizona following her graduation from Cranbrook Kingswood School. And while at college, Frank dreamed up a line of brightly colored pendants and novelty caricatures that were inspired by iconic characters such as Betty Boop.
Then, after spotting a trend for stickers, Frank created a set in a rainbow theme. These items in turn would serve as the springboard for Lisa Frank Inc., which she launched in 1979. And within a year, the entrepreneur would earn an order worth a cool $1 million.
In an October 2012 interview with Urban Outfitters Television, Frank explained of her artistic leanings, “When I was little, I was totally a girlie girl. I was a huge colorer. Huge. To keep me quiet, they bought the coloring books and the crayons, and I used to fill up the books, and they’d have to buy me another one.”
Similarly, Frank’s target market was young girls under the age of 12. And it seems that her creative sense proved correct. After all, over two decades the company grew from a solo project into a billion-dollar enterprise employing several hundred staff.
During the early years of the company, stickers were the focus – despite their production proving extremely laborious. In 1983, you see, Frank explained the process that each sticker went through from inception to completion. Essentially, the design started with a concept before being sketched out in pencil and then turned into a painting – pending approval. And, incredibly, this process took at least three months.
And Frank’s brightly colored stickers – which featured what would become her identifiable rainbow and caricature designs – ultimately became widely available at small retailers throughout the U.S. However, not long after the young entrepreneur hit the jackpot, the hugely popular sticker market became unstuck.
Yes, the sticker business was going into decline, and yet where so many others might have seen impending failure, Frank saw opportunity. Rather than stopping and just giving up, you see, the artist took the company in a new direction.
In a rare interview, with CNN in 1998, Frank recalled, “We had millions of units of stickers, and when the bottom falls out of the industry, what are you gonna do with all the goods? So we started packaging the stuff for mass market.” But her entrepreneurial vision didn’t end there.
Rather than watching the company go into decline in a changing market, Frank instead seized an opportunity to expand. In addition, the business switched from the stickers that had been its forte to the production of school supplies. And with the same target market in mind, Frank turned basic school notebooks, pens and pencils into quirky collectables.
From 1987, then, Frank’s company began churning out notebooks, pencils, pens, erasers, pencil cases, binders and folders. Each item carried the company’s characteristic rainbow colors and girlie insignia such as stars, cupcakes, kittens, candy canes, gumball machines, unicorns and music notes. And the designs wonderfully captured the imaginations of Frank’s target market.
The colors on Frank’s products were always vibrant, too, including hot pinks and purples to appeal to the brand’s demographic of elementary- and middle-school girls. Further designs saw neon greens and yellows intermingled in illustrations of unicorns, kittens, butterflies and dolphins.
Frank also bought the rights for a number of cartoon icons, including Popeye, Mighty Mouse and Betty Boop. In Boop’s black curly hair, big eyes and button nose set on a childlike face, Frank recognized the timelessness of striking caricatures, and subsequent Lisa Frank products from the line featured the character riding a unicorn.
Unicorns feature on a number of Frank’s products, although one of her earliest characters was in fact the artist Panda Painter. Wherever the dungarees-clad bear laid his brush, he painted the world with rainbow colors. And Panda Painter – among others – helped the entire Lisa Frank Inc. line go from strength to strength.
Frank’s business embraced innovation, too. In 1989, for example, Lisa Frank Inc. ditched the cumbersome hand painting that it had previously employed in favor of computer-aided design. And this change not only affected the company’s method of working, but it also improved the quality of its artworks.
Advertising campaigns followed using the company’s commercial slogan, “You gotta have it.” One commercial even starred a teenage Mila Kunis, who said, “The stickers were so cool! The colors were awesome! [I’ve] gotta have it. What more can I say?” The young actress was also once a cover girl on the company’s official magazine.
And, ultimately, Lisa Frank Inc.’s designs became so popular that the company set up a fan club. As well as getting a quarterly magazine containing tips and activities, subscribers each received a membership card and certificate, stationery such as pens and pencils, stickers, hair clips and much more besides. Frank continued to expand the product range, too, as she rode her business’ success.
Name a product, and it’s likely that Frank has stuck a rainbow on it. There are probably even items that you wouldn’t think of, too. Among the plethora of Frank-branded goods, there were napkins and utensils for kids’ parties, body wash, clothing, plushies, backpacks, temporary tattoos and even kaleidoscopes.
Frank’s company had thus grown enormously from the days of jewelry designs that she’d begun doing at university. In fact, at its height in the 1990s, the firm was making over $60 million a year, with staff numbering in their hundreds. And the whole enterprise was all run out of a huge warehouse in Tucson, Arizona.
The Lisa Frank Inc. headquarters was a 320,000-square-foot building located on the appropriately named S. Lisa Frank Avenue near Tucson International Airport. And the factory, which opened in 1996, was by all appearances as extravagant as its owner – yet both were somewhat shrouded in mystery.
You see, although Lisa Frank Inc. was first established way back in 1979, very few images of its proprietor exist in the public domain. In fact, only a handful of pictures of the woman herself can be found on the internet. And when Frank was filmed for an 2012 interview to promote a partnership with Urban Outfitters, she requested that her face be hidden.
Frank does, however, appear in the aforementioned CNN interview from 1998, where on camera she is almost as brightly attired as the many characters that feature in her work. Fittingly, there the artist is seen sporting a rainbow-colored shirt and eye-catching earrings.
Yet Frank’s staff enjoyed regular sightings of the talented entrepreneur. And in 2013 a former employee named Kyle described the company’s reclusive owner to Jezebel. He recalled, “She kind of looks like one of her characters. [She was] very over the top and very colorful [with] big hair and really big eyes.”
Meanwhile, Frank has given a small insight into her own personality by divulging that her characters are a reflection of herself. As she explained to Jezebel, Purrscilla – a kitten with voluminous white fur – is the creation with whom she most identifies. The admission is a surprising one, too, given that the businesswoman is apparently not particularly fond of cats.
But as Frank described to Urban Outfitters Television in 2012, “Purrscilla is very into glam and glitz and jewelry and everything very girly. And some of the jewelry in the illustration is even my own jewelry… She is a really glamorous kitty.” And with her business thriving, Frank, too, could afford the same luxuries.
In the absence of any publicity from Frank herself, then, Purrscilla is perhaps the best measure of what she is actually like. And images of the cartoon kitty depict an abundance of diamond-encrusted jewelry, strands of pearls, tiaras, opulent gems and brooches and other accoutrements. So if that’s any indicator, then Frank was doing very well indeed.
However, the higher the rise, the harder the fall. And as electronic communication continued to take over, the stationery that featured so heavily in Frank’s product line fell out of favor. Sales dropped, and according to Dun & Bradstreet, the company that had at its peak been turning over $60 million a year brought in only $2.3 million in 2012.
Gradually, Lisa Frank Inc.’s branded retail stores sadly shut down until none remained. As a result, the stationery products that once filled the aisles of retailers hoping to catch the eye of elementary school girls are now hard to find. And as demand for the products dwindled, production was inevitably curtailed.
With output slowing down, too, there was less need for the staff who worked at Frank’s company. And according to the Arizona Daily Star, Lisa Frank Inc. employees had been reduced from their hundreds to a mere six by June 2013. However, Jackie Gambrell, executive assistant to Frank, denied that claim as “unkind and untrue” at the time.
And by 2011 the headquarters in Tuscon was empty save for the inventory archive, according to the newspaper. Yet the building holds as much mystery as the woman who owns it. And, interestingly, no visitors were ever allowed onto the complex – not even the workers’ family members, reckons Jezebel.
For its part, the complex, which features Frank’s unique designs, is famous around Tucson for its decor. And in November 2018 Insider took a look inside the grounds. There, the outlet found giant musical notes, hearts and stars painted in pink, purple, orange, yellow, green and blue on one exterior wall. Broad stripes in all the colors of the rainbow were painted on another side of the interior.
Elsewhere around the factory’s site, the publication found fiberglass figurines that depict Frank’s characters as oversized novelty statues. And towards the entrance of the building, a sculpture of a unicorn stood. In typically flamboyant Lisa Frank style, the model was large and silver – although it also lacked its horn.
Throughout its life, though, the inside of the headquarters seemingly remained a mystery to everyone beyond those who worked there. And yet mailman Ray Champaco – who started delivering letters there in 1996 – recalled a time when the site was abuzz with employees and delivery trucks.
Even so, after Frank’s business had been downgraded to a much smaller operation, however, the entrepreneur and her team no longer had any use for such a vast space. In 2016, then, a brokerage firm began the search to find a new occupant for the facility. And thanks to images of the factory that subsequently came to light, many people finally got the chance to take a look inside the company’s former base.
Lisa Frank Inc. is, in fact, the only company that has ever used the building, which sits on an 18.5-acre site. And given its technical description as a concrete tilt and block construction with 28-foot ceilings and a number of loading docks, it sounds pretty much like any other warehouse. It’s the decor, however, that makes the structure stand out.
The overgrown foliage in the building’s grounds obscures the multi-colored loading bays, for example. Past unkempt shrubs and bushes, meanwhile, there is a facade featuring pink-tinted mirrored glass. And inside the lobby, instead of a receptionist, there’s an oversized effigy of Panda Painter.
Elsewhere, comic-strip-style pop art decorates the walls of rooms furnished with funky modern furniture, while novelty oversized statues of characters and trinkets dot the office spaces. Toys and paraphernalia line shelves, pedestals, tables and display cases throughout the building, too. Indeed, everything is larger than life and bursting with color.
A fire-proof vault also remains home to every piece of original artwork and product that Lisa Frank Inc. has ever made. However, unlike the lively art and ornaments that fill the factory, the buzz and hum of activity has all but left the premises.
It’s true, too, that Lisa Frank Inc.’s fortunes have declined. In part, that’s down to the company’s inability to keep up with changing trends, although legal disputes surrounding ownership and manufacturing deals can’t have helped. That said, Lisa Frank products are now collectors’ items, and Frank herself now contracts her work out.
But while the factory is now on sale for a cool $17 million, Frank hasn’t stopped dreaming. As she told Urban Outfitters in 2015, “If I could do anything, I think [I would make] a theme park – because the world of Lisa Frank really is a world. And I think before I die, we should have that world someplace – not just on paper. I think that would be pretty awesome.”