Robert Tonner was a highly successful designer of women’s fashions when he left that industry in 1991 to found Kingston-based Tonner Doll Company, where he designs collectible dolls and pop-culture action figures.
“This is like fashion design except we also design the person,” Tonner says. So does that make the job harder or simpler? “It’s easier when it comes to fitting,” he jokes. “Dolls don’t complain.”
During the past 20 years, Tonner and company have designed a stylish army of hundreds of porcelain/vinyl dolls: everything from vintage-era Betsy McCall, Goldilocks, and the Wizard of Oz gang to Harry Potter, Wonder Woman, and Dr. Who. The limited-production figures typically range from $50 to $200. Yes, these are designed for collectors, not toddlers.
A stunning version of DC Comics’ Wonder Woman
The company’s latest coup is landing the rights to design and market figures based on classic Marvel comic characters, such as the X-Men’s Jean Grey and Storm, and the recently released World War II-era Captain America (who made his movie debut this summer). Tonner is highly regarded for its quarter-scale figures with movable joints, hand-painted facial features, and rooted hair. The company is the Hulk of the realistic action-figure world; each year it holds a massive doll-centric convention with workshops, panels, celebrities and the unveiling of new figures. Tonner expanded its legacy in 2002 with the purchase of Effanbee Doll Company, one of America’s oldest doll makers.
Tonner sculpts his dolls’ faces and makes use of the same fine fabrics and feathers used in high-fashion wear. But even after two decades of designing dolls — two of which have been chosen for the Museum of Decorative Arts collection at the Louvre — he says the hardest thing is simply deciding which figures to make. “We work with the best studios out there, and they have a lot of properties, so the hardest thing is trying to figure what works for us and what works in a collectible character or doll figure.”
Edward Cullen of the Twilight book series was the fastest-selling of Tonner’s characters
For instance, Tonner had first crack at the characters of the Twilight book series, before the movies were made. He thought the characters were interesting but took on the project without any high expectations. “Then after the movie hit, we couldn’t sell Edward Cullen fast enough,” Tonner notes. “Edward ended up being the fastest-selling character we’d ever done.” He subsequently had the opportunity to create figures based on the TV series The Vampire Diaries, but figured it was a long shot because they’d just issued a vampire series. “Who’s going to want another one? But sure enough, they like those vampires. You just never know.”
Other dolls, however, have crashed like a porcelain head falling on concrete. Tonner said he thought Disney’s Narnia films were “perfect” for a doll project. “The dolls were a disaster,” he says of the poor sales. (One possible reason, he says: at $150 apiece, the entire set cost $600.) Ditto for the film The Golden Compass, whose figures “just didn’t seem to resonate at all.”
Lackluster response can also come from pushing a concept past the point of sanity. “At one point, anything ‘fashion’ would sell, and we were trying all kinds of things to see where the collector might want to go. So we tried this thing called Luna and the Little Martians. She was a fashion doll, and she came in different colors, like gold skin, blue skin. They didn’t sell.” (Keep your eye out for Martian infants Zippie, Starla, and Celestra at yard sales; poor sellers sometimes turn out to be highly collectible in the long run, Tonner says.)
Go figure: Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean is a top-seller
While Marvel comics has its Avengers and D.C. Comics has the League of Justice, Tonner has his own version of a doll supergroup based on super sales: “It’s like this: Alice in Wonderland. Anything we do with Alice in Wonderland sells. Johnny Depp. Every time we’ve done a portrait of him, the dolls sell. Captain Jack Sparrow [of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie series] is probably our number-two doll in the history of the company. And vampires. They just sell.”
He’s also proud of the success of Cami and Jon, which he describes as “two girlfriends who dress in fashionable clothes,” and Tyler Wentworth, a New York fashion designer with Park Avenue cachet. That’s a familiar milieu for Tonner, who studied at Manhattan’s Parsons School of Design and began working for Bill Blass in 1978. He’d long been interested in dolls, though, and first tried his hand at doll sculpting in 1981. In 1985 he submitted one of his handmade fashion dolls to be judged at the National Institute of American Doll Artists Conference in New York City and was encouraged by the praise. About 25 years ago he began weekending in the Valley, moving to Stone Ridge full time when he formed Tonner Dolls.
There are no “average days,” he says of the goings-on at the Kingston headquarters, which houses administration, bookkeeping, sales, customer service, and, on the second floor, design. (Manufacturing is primarily done in China.) But there are plenty of strange days, he says, encounters that can lead to who-knows-what. “A couple of years ago my assistant told me that Gene Simmons was on the phone,” he recalls. “I said, ‘The exercise guy?’ ‘No, that’s Richard Simmons. This is Gene Simmons from KISS.’ ” Simmons wanted to talk about licensing, and Tonner eventually met with him. Although he says it’s unclear what Simmons actually got out of the meeting, the aging glam-rocker proffered some off-the-cuff advice: Why aren’t you making toys for little kids? This fall, the company is doing just that with the launch of Tonner Toys, a division for the rough-and-tumble playground set.