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.
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.
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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.
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."
You mentioned also the idea of going into animation?
I would love to work on a stop-animation feature or a [computer graphics feature]. I feel like my experience over the past 10 years helped me become someone who can do that. And I want to do that. Because all my characters had personalities. You know, a lot of those characters happened by accident. Clancy was Julius in a giraffe outfit for Halloween, but then I made it all yellow. I never set out to do a giraffe. I was doodling Julius in a Halloween costume. Worry Bear was a sketch I did on a napkin flying back from Seattle. I drew this bear with his hands up, like "Woooo!" Those kinds of things, they come from a weird place. You're not thinking, "What can we do now to make money?" I do a lot of things that are kind of like a dream or a reaction or something about your personality. Julius started out as a sock monkey that my grandma made for Uncle Tony. And then I just started sewing him on wallets and selling them.
There's a real humor to your characters.
I like to use humor, you know. Humor goes beyond characters. I guess I don't ever think of it specifically—it's just an idea. You know, if I make a character that has a personality, I don't ever think that I'm making an animal who could talk. As a designer, the challenge is to work with what you're given in the medium that you're in. You don't think about Bugs Bunny as a rabbit all the time. He's this wise guy. You don't think of Goofy as a dog. He's just Goofy. His personality—you almost forget what species they are.
But then, once the company got big, it became a real job?
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I think, you know, it got real business-y. And I'm not a businessman. And weird things started happening. They wanted to start changing some of the trademark logos, and the vice presidents started doing way more than they should have. I went on honeymoon last July, and when I came back, they'd moved my office out into the hall and put the marketing department in my office. And, it's like, that's not what you're supposed to do to the person whose name is on the label. That's disrespectful.
It's like they were moving away from . . . you?
I couldn't say it any better than you just said it. That's a clear indication right there. They're clearly saying the marketing and business is more important than the creative person.