Characters such as Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog and Kliban's Cats have been showing up in many American homes recently, in books and other products and as motifs on decorative home accessories.
These commercially successful figures are, however, only the latest in a long line of animals, which have been used in many forms as home decor.
Beginning with the noble cat in ancient Egypt--whose image was worshipped as a goddess--and continuing with more mundane creatures such as monkeys, pigs, rabbits, owls, frogs, roosters and teddy bears, animals have been popular decorations for home furnishings and toys for centuries. But they are particularly popular right now, according to Michele Clise, because they add a warm and personal touch to the home.
Though almost any animal form can provide this distinction, her own favorite is stuffed teddy bears.
Books on Teddy Bears
"I'd like to be remembered as the Beatrix Potter of teddy bears," she says. She is pursuing her goal by authoring several books about the adventures of a teddy bear named Ophelia and her friends, by selling stuffed bears--both old and new--in a Seattle shop she calls "Bazaar des Bears" and by arranging for a toy company to reproduce Ophelia as a $150 collectible.
Clise, 49, is a display artist and designer as well as owner of the Bazaar des Bears, located in the picturesque Pike Street Market complex, where she also sells decorative home furnishings, accessories such as lace, antique, and contemporary bed linens, pillows and potpourri. The emphasis is on creating environments appropriate in Victorian and country style interiors.
Her interest in stuffed animals began more than 20 years ago when she was working as a display artist in a local toy store. She created displays in which stuffed toys were dressed and accessorized. At the same time, she began to collect old stuffed toys which she displayed in her home.
"I like antiques and old things, so I also began collecting old christening dresses, lace, toys, children's furniture and toy furniture," she said.
Added to Home's Charm
She'd construct a special vignette and use it as a party table centerpiece or on a mantel or table top. She found these accessories added considerably to the charm of her home.
The stuffed toys seemed to inspire people to make up stories about them, imagining a life for each of the characters. The stuffed bears (by now she'd become a collector primarily of bears) developed "personalities" and histories. Each had a name and a story which friends helped construct. Ophelia (a purchase for $65 at a local antique show) was characterized as a Parisian shop owner with a flirtatious and mischievous personality. Clarence, her suitor, became the perfect gentleman. Friends began to buy old doll clothes and accessories for their favorite bear characters.
Eventually, she moved from her large Victorian home. As a present, a friend arranged for a photographer to take pictures of the house before it was broken up. The first book about Ophelia and the other bears was a collaboration between the photographer, Marsha Burns, and Clise.
"Ophelia's World," the just-published sequel, is also a collaboration between the two. It tells in pictures and diary entries of a year in the Parisian life of Ophelia and friends. All the pictured characters are teddy bears in her collection.
Clise and Ophelia, her constant companion, have been featured in ads in Seattle and have become well-known in the community. They've appeared on local television where the toy bear came to the attention of Steiff Co., a well-known German manufacturer of stuffed toys sold all over the world. Clise concluded an agreement with Steiff and this fall a reproduction of the stuffed bear made its appearance in a number of retail stores around the country.
Though it may seem odd for adults to give personalities and imaginary lives to toys, she has found most people, regardless of age, educational level or occupation, enter readily and with pleasure into the fantasy.
("Ophelia's World" is published by Clarkson N. Potter.)