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Products That Pack a Punchline

Five Art Center graduates pool their senses of humor for SuperHappyBunny, a playful line of furniture and goods.

May 19, 2000|LESLEE KOMAIKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SuperHappyBunny is a great name for a rock band. And the five guys in the group certainly look and act the part: They keep late hours, sleep in and favor black as a fashion statement. Popular pastimes include smoking and drinking. There's just one problem: SuperHappyBunny isn't a band. It's a design firm with a catalog of stuff.

Exactly five pieces of stuff at the moment.

And though none of the stuff has come to market yet, the group hopes to ship its offbeat merchandise later this year.

Hayes Urban, a company co-founder, described the SuperHappyBunny aesthetic as furniture and products that inspire "an emotional response."

Urban, like his fellow bunnies--Bart Haney, Edwin Roses, Dave Sherman and Gabriel Carlson--attended Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. But it wasn't until the five 20-somethings became neighbors at the Brewery, the artists' residential community on the northeast edge of downtown L.A., that a friendship developed. SuperHappyBunny was formed in April.

"There's a kind of dorm-like environment," Roses offered, "a stunted adolescence."

Urban is responsible for the design group's unusual name. He came up with it out of necessity during his Art Center days.

"When you're in college," he explained, "you usually don't pay for any software." But in order to download free software, a company name is often required. Urban always filled the blanks with "SuperHappyBunny."

"Whenever I say it to someone," Urban admitted, "they laugh."

Added Haney: "I rarely have a problem getting people to remember it."

Although the members of SuperHappyBunny have strong design backgrounds, only one of the five products proposed for their debut catalog was conceived by a group member. That is the "Neo-Amish Seating," a.k.a. the Bart chair, after Bart Haney. The chair uses no nails or glue and can be put together in "three to five simple steps," Haney says. Instead of the usual dull instructional manual destined for a kitchen drawer, there's a sharp poster. Also included: a "bunny banger," a flat piece of plywood cut from production scrap. The can of soup that transforms the banger into an effective mallet, however, must be purchased separately.

Haney scored a coup recently by persuading Art Center President Richard Koshalek to let him place the chair on stage during a presentation by Frank Gehry. The renowned architect pronounced the chair "deceptively comfortable," Haney said. "And he signed it. It's in my bedroom."

The group's other designs include Special #8, a coffee table that looks like a Chinese takeout box

and is lighted from within, and Visopia balls, squishy blue, baseball-sized lights made of silicone gel. Both were designed by Art Center students.

"Our goal is to find young, exciting designers," Carlson said. "We put our hand in the soup too. The great advantage to the designer is that they're involved in the final manipulation and manufacture of the product."

The group's sense of humor can be subtle. One of its products, which appears to be a hand puppet, is in fact meant to be a tea-cozy style cover for something one might describe as a "marital aid." That item was the brainchild of Roses' girlfriend, DeEtte DeVille, a second-year medical resident at Loma Linda Hospital.

Although the items are shown on the company's slick Web site, http://www.superhappybunny.com, there is no plan to sell online.

"We'd need a full sales force," Urban said. "Besides, investors have soured to the idea of small dot-coms. For now, I see our stuff going to smaller boutiques."

SuperHappyBunny is still negotiating with manufacturers, and the principals hope to begin production in the next two months.

Like many start-ups, the group is seeking financing, but cautiously: "They're not getting half the company or even a quarter," insisted Urban, who said he has letters of intent "from people who want to buy many, many products." And, he added, plenty of retailers are eager for the items.

According to the SuperHappyBunny business plan, the target audience is "an emerging new market of consumers, the young and growing dot-com population. They are well-paid, overworked and critically conscious of the objects in their lives."

Said Urban: "There's a shortage of furniture that appeals to them. IKEA satisfies without being offensive. We want to reward them with innovation . . . give them something they're proud to have. . . . We're like comfort food for those people lucky enough to have horrible jobs."

Or, as Roses put it (somewhat awkwardly), "I think having products around that you love makes happy, better people in the world."

"The designs are fresh, really innovative, really funny," said Paul Griff of Cite Design, an architectural design firm with a retail shop in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood. "We would totally sell that stuff here. It would appeal to a young crowd, but not the Gap-Old Navy crowd . . . more of the designers, fashion people and artists. . . . It's stuff to get stoned by."

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