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Crazy for Cute : Their Tacts Differ, but Anne Geddes and Mary Engelbreit Have the Kid Market Cornered

November 18, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the kingdom of the cute, photographer Anne Geddes and artist Mary Engelbreit reign. Geddes' baby images adorn greeting cards, books, stationery, totes and T-shirts, while Engelbreit's nostalgic drawings embellish a diverse line of products--mugs and magnets, samplers and stickers, boxes and baby bedding.

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Anne Geddes can't help but smile. Turning the tables on her, a photographer has brought a big bunch of sunflowers with which to pose her, much as she poses all those elfin babies as everything from cactuses to carrots.

Geddes has plenty of reasons to smile, not least among these the fact that her new $50 coffee table book, "Down in the Garden," with its cover of a snoozing infant done up as a butterfly, has U.S. sales of 200,000.

For the moment, Geddes' husband, Kel, holds the heap of sunflowers in his lap. Laughing, she teases him, "You look like a very old bride at her fifth wedding."

In a Beverly Hills hotel room, a copy of her garden-themed book before her, the New Zealand photographer admits right off to being a charlatan: "I don't have a garden. I hate gardening."

Hers are make-believe gardens, where babies sleep in watermelons, sit in flowerpots, peep out from under mushrooms and metamorphose as inchworms.

But her success is very real. Since creating her first calendar in 1992, Anne and Kel--who left a TV network post to manage and market Anne--have launched a veritable baby boom in 50 countries with 16 products from baby books to totes. This year, close to 10 million books, calendars and greeting cards have sold in the U.S.

An Aussie living in Auckland, New Zealand, she decided after seven years of shooting traditional baby portraits that "I'm painting by numbers." So she set aside a day a week to create. The first payoff: a photo of infant twins sitting in cabbages with cabbage caps.

A style was born.

It's a style now so familiar that babies as flora and fauna seem almost normal. Recently, waiting in the green room at the "Oprah" show, Geddes cuddled two babies-as-bumblebees. None of the other guests even blinked. "That did concern me a bit," she says.

Hundreds of proud parents submit pictures, hoping their little ones will decorate the next Geddes creation as a ladybug, bird or pond lily.

Each baby is paid, but pros need not apply. Geddes said thanks, but no thanks, to an agent touting "an experienced 6-month-old." The butterfly on the cover of her book is a former neighbor's daughter. As with many Geddes images, her wings are not what they seem. "Very expensive white velvet," she explains.

For Geddes, 40, baby central is her studio below the apartment where she and Kel, 49, and daughters Stephanie, 12, and Kelly, 10, live. Although she puts babies in pots and buckets and stuffs them into foam carrots and pea pods, Geddes insists: "Everything the babies are doing is really comfortable for them. Newborns love to be wrapped nice and securely."

Watermelon halves were de-juiced and lined with bubble wrap before the babies went in. For babies posed tummy-down on hard surfaces, "We have hotties," Geddes says. (That's Australian for hot water bottles.)

Lilliputian babies perch on giant flowers. But this isn't "Gulliver's Travels"; it's computer imaging. Says Geddes: "People ask, 'Where do you get those big flowers?' I say, 'Oh, they grow them very big down in Australia and New Zealand. You must get down to see them.' "

Her flowers are fresh, but her red toadstools are Styrofoam and plaster. The work boots in which newborn twins nap are fool-the-eye custom jobs, size 23. (To put things in perspective, Shaquille O'Neal's a mere 22.) Babies as peas in pods rest on a carpet of 240 pounds of real peas, later fed to the Auckland Zoo's elephants.

Why do her calendars and books jump off store shelves? "Maybe I've made it OK to love babies," she suggests. "Everybody's gotten so uptight about themselves. I think maybe it frees them up a little bit."

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We reach Mary Engelbreit by phone at the Engeldome, the onetime Greek Orthodox church in suburban St. Louis that houses Mary Engelbreit Studios, shrine of a $90-million-a-year business built on "Breit ideas."

These include a new bimonthly magazine, Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion, which debuted in September and already boasts as subscribers more than 30,000 devotees of the artist's whimsical work, which is heavy on nostalgia and homespun homilies.

Martha Stewart, she isn't. Engelbreit, wife and mother, says, "If the cooking were up to me, we'd all starve in a really cute room." She adds: "Our magazine kind of assumes that you aren't organized and you never will be organized, but you want a nice house anyway. We show quick and easy ways."

Take crafts, she says (something she herself hasn't time for): "If you're going to spend a fortune, you might as well go out and buy the thing."

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