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Not Toying Around, Doll-Maker Creates Folk Art : Ilona Werner-Martin Uses International Array of Materials in Her Creations

July 10, 1993|VALARIE ORLEANS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ilona Werner-Martin never set out to be a doll-maker. In fact, while growing up in East Germany, the daughter of Hungarian-German parents, she never even owned a doll.

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Instead, she spent much of her time learning to sew, taking apart pieces of old clothing and then stitching them back together. Money was tight, so every scrap of fabric was put to good use.

"Learning to sew that way was a wonderful lesson," she recalls from her studio in Newport Beach. "I not only learned how to make clothing, but I learned how to reuse fabric and I saw how different materials and patterns worked together."

When she came to America as a young woman to study journalism in New York, she continued to sew her own clothes and soon established her own business designing clothes.

With the leftover scraps of fabric, Werner-Martin began making little dolls.

"Perhaps I was making up for what I lacked as a child," she said. "I've always loved dolls and hardly a day goes by that I don't work on them."

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Since she began creating them 17 years ago, the dolls have been featured at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles (which has since closed), as well as in hundreds of stores and boutiques across the nation.

Featuring papier-mache heads and elongated bodies, legs and arms, the dolls were originally designed to be hung on walls as works of art.

"I do consider them art," Werner-Martin said. "They aren't really designed to be played with but to be admired. I began making them with a friend, Ninetta, just for fun. We'd collect scraps of fabric, create the dolls and then give them away as gifts."

Recipients of the dolls then began asking Werner-Martin to create dolls for other friends.

Before long, she found herself taking orders for her dolls as well as the clothing she designed. Eventually, she found that her "little hobby" was getting too expensive and so she began selling the dolls.

She calls them Ilonka Country Dolls, using a diminutive version of her own name (in Hungary, adding a "k" sound to a name implies "little" and is a term of endearment). The style, she explains, is similar to European dolls that are also frequently dressed in colorful, country-inspired fabrics.

"Each doll is unique and is individually sewn," she said. "I take the fabrics and lay them out side by side to see what will work. It's not an assembly-line process. Each doll is created separately. The only concession I make to convenience is creating several heads at a time, but each one is still hand-painted."

The papier-mache heads are formed, baked and then a sealer and glaze are applied. The face is painted and then another coat of sealant is added.

After that, drying takes at least one day. Small holes are drilled in the bottom of the doll's head, and it is then secured to the body by sewing it onto the square, cloth body block. Once the arms and legs are added, Werner-Martin adds a long dress and other accessories to complete the work.

"Since the dolls are made with country fabrics and papier-mache, I use primitive-style sewing techniques," Werner-Martin said. "I like to use contrasting thread so the stitches stand out more."'

These one-of-a-kind dolls are often created from an international array of materials: antique lace found on a trip to France, antique wooden buttons from Vienna, English prints secured in London.

Fabrics are hand-blocked and different cloth is sewn to the dresses to serve as borders or to provide interesting flourishes.

"Most of the fabric I use comes from Provence, a small area in France," Werner-Martin said. "The fabric is 100% cotton and usually features small prints. I like to combine different fabrics to create more interesting looks."

Werner-Martin originally started out making dolls with a girl's face, dressed in a long dress with a kerchief at the neck. Often these dolls have a wooden heart on a band around their necks or are holding small, straw baskets.

Their popularity led to other creations including cats, rabbits, pigs, cows, ducks, hens and roosters.

Werner-Martin's dolls have been featured locally in a Fashion Island jewelry store window (a group of dolls dressed in winter clothes, a la "Les Miserables," was used as a backdrop for a display of diamonds) as well as in several shops in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas. They also set the stage for a 1989 Christmas window display at Gump's in San Francisco.

Werner-Martin also custom-designed some of her dolls for the New York Metropolitan Museum to coincide with a special ballet exhibit.

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The customers at the Ilonka Designs shop in Newport Beach are often interior designers who want to add art to a room and are looking for a medium that's unusual. Some buyers are collectors of other art works as well.

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