Let Me Be Frank

Paul Frank talks about what's next and why, so far, it's not being Paul Frank

Not unlike some rock & roll bands—his side project, the Moseleys, perhaps—Paul Frank Industries started in a garage in Huntington Beach, where, in 1995, the design-savvy Paul Frank Sunich began by sewing guitar straps. Later—not much later—he and friend Ryan Heuser, ex-Mossimo public relations man, started selling these and other creations, like vinyl wallets, at local swap meets and boutiques.

Also quite early on, Sunich (he'd quickly drop the last name in all but formal references) drew up a wide-jawed, great-grinned monkey named Julius—and, well, that was it. Together with third partner John Oswald, they incorporated as Paul Frank Industries, and with a menagerie of cuddly but concerned young fauna at their back—Worry Bear, Clancy the World's Smallest Giraffe—sales blasted to more than $40 million a year.

Those were good times. Julius, still the company's most famous character, cavorted on purses with Hello Kitty; he took a bite out of Andy Warhol's famous pop art banana. The company inked licensing deals with Orange County icons Fender guitars and exotica artist Shag. And in a stroke of genius, Frank was called in to update the iconic 1956 George Nelson "Marshmallow" sofa.

Paul Frank: the man with no name
Amy Theilig
Paul Frank: the man with no name

Then, in November, word came—from the company—that Paul Frank had left "to pursue other interests." And that, until now, was it. Last week, Sunich sued the company he co-founded eight years ago, alleging that he was fired without cause, has suffered more than $1 million in damages, and is unable to work—or to use his own name professionally. (Heuser and Oswald declined to comment, but through its public relations agency, PFI called Sunich's claims "completely meritless and untrue.") At OC Weekly's request, Sunich followed the lawsuit up with a, uh, candid telephone conversation Monday about what he really wants to do.

* * *

OC Weekly: So saying things changed for you at Paul Frank Industries is an understatement?

Paul Frank: Yeah, of course it changed. It became not the same. I started out wanting to be an artist, and I wanted to collaborate with other people. That's the thing—at Paul Frank Industries, I couldn't do things like that. The business would get in the way, and the offers wouldn't be good enough for my partners. So I couldn't do it. They're continuing to try to stifle that.

How so?

Well, I've already been creating, and I've been talking to a few companies about what I want to do as far as design. But I've already started designing things and I'm ready to move on. Any time I go to call on any other firm, their [Paul Frank Industries] lawyer sends me a letter telling me I can't do that.

Wow. When they let you go, how did that happen?

They fired me Nov. 1. They called an emergency board meeting—interestingly, the board is made up all of people who are friends and relatives—and they voted 5-1 to terminate me without cause. They did it over the phone too.

So you weren't there? Who was the dissenting vote?

I was the dissenting vote. Nobody was [there. It was a meeting via speakerphone]. I guess I wasn't even important enough to have a real in-person meeting.

And then, the following week, the media received the press release that you had left to pursue other interests?

They cut off my [company] cell phone that morning. I didn't even know about the newspaper [article] that morning. My mom called me. I didn't want it to come to this. I didn't want to have to do this. I'm just an artist. I just want to create. They've forced me not to be able to work, and that's not right.

What would you like to do next?

I want to go into animation and film and books. Julius was just one little part of my design experience, and I've created all these characters. With or without them I'm still Paul Frank. I can design no matter what the media. I'm an artist.

And you've become interested in visual media?

I like the idea of going into a visual media. I loved creating Julius and Friends[the animated cartoon series on the PFI website]—not just developing the cartoon, but doing the voices—like on Julius and Friends, I did the Worry Bear voice. And that was just the funnest time, working with Jason Schwartzman and not just him but the Vons lady, Christina? I'll think about that for a while. That's the kind of stuff I want to be able to do, even develop new characters. I don't need the old characters. I can create new ones. I've been concepting ideas for commercials.

You like commercials?

I really like commercials. I would really like to work on commercials. I think they're one of the most effective forms of media. They're interesting and they happen—click! You can't have the same commercial too long, and—click! That's what I like. When I design something, I want to grab your attention. You go, "Oh, that's different, that's unique."

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