In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Lisa Frank was the epitome of cool. Here are a few things you might not have known about the brand, and the woman behind it.
1. There’s a real Lisa Frank.
Though Lisa Frank is rarely seen and doesn’t grant interviews these days, she is, in fact, a real person. Frank grew up in Detroit and, as a high school senior, sold $3000 worth of her art at an art show [PDF].
2. Lisa Frank launched the company while she was in college.
Frank went to the University of Arizona to study math and art, and told Urban Outfitters in a rare interview (granted in 2012, when the retailer began selling vintage Lisa Frank pieces online) that when she made the decision, “my dad said 'That's fine, but you're going to support yourself.' ... I am sure that if I failed, he would have been there for me, but it was a sort of a tough-love situation.” To get by, she started her own business, according to the Arizona Daily Star [PDF], by buying “pottery and jewelry from area Indian tribes and [bringing] them home to Michigan to sell. Once the network of artists she met grew, she began to represent them and sell their handmade work.”
Eventually, she started telling artists what to make—then decided to make things herself. She launched Sticky Fingers, which featured plastic jewelry, when she was just 20; according to Jezebel, it was sold in Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s.
In 1979, when she was 24, Frank renamed the company Lisa Frank Inc., because, according to the Arizona Daily Star, “her name was more familiar to those in the industry since her days representing artists.” In her first year of business, Frank sold a $1 million sticker order to Spencer’s Gifts.
3. One of Lisa Frank’s first designs was a gumball machine.
The design that started it all....Iconic Lisa Frank!
“The gumball machine comes from when I was little,” Frank told UO. “My dad gave me an antique gumball machine, so that was my original logo ... And also, you know how when your friends find out you're into something, they start sending it to you? So I probably have a huge collection of gumballs somewhere.”
The company’s early designs, she said, “were very simplistic. The very first thing we made before stickers were buttons, and since they were so small, we did the artwork very small too.” Eventually, the line would expand to include pencils, stationery, folders, lunchboxes, backpacks, Trapper Keepers, and more.
4. Initially, all of the Lisa Frank art was drawn and colored by hand.
When Rondi Kutz joined Lisa Frank as an artist in 1987, she did concepts for designs with markers, acrylics, and airbrushing. “All of the art back then was done by airbrush, although they did have one computer that the creative director was learning to use,” she told HelloGiggles. “Then the other artists learned to create the airbrushed ‘look’ art and started to do all of the illustrations on the computer by 1988-‘89.” Kutz, who eventually became Lisa Frank, Inc.’s Senior Designer/Product Development Group Leader and worked there until 2002, said that she “had no patience for the computer, so continued to do concepts as marker renderings, which then went to the computer illustrators to clean up and illustrate.”
5. Many artists collaborated on the Lisa Frank illustrations.
“The artwork was a collaborative effort, but it all began with me putting it on paper as a marker rendering,” Kutz told HelloGiggles. “The concepts came from Lisa, James (her husband), or me, so I can say that some of the characters were my idea and original design. But by the time it went to an illustrator to redraw it, adding detail, then to the computer artist who rendered it on the computer (which entailed hundreds of hours of work), it had many artists’ stamps on it.”
Frank herself said that “We have to stop me and say ‘OK, it’s enough!’ Because one illustration can have hundreds of hours in it. It’s really kind of madness.” (“Lisa is fanatical about detail,” Kutz said. “But that is what makes her art so extraordinary.”)
6. Lisa Frank has two favorite characters.
They're the rainbow print leopard and tiger cubs named Hunter and Forrest, “who are based off my kids!” Frank told UO. “Forrest is based on my 13-year-old, and Hunter is a 17-year-old character who was named the day Hunter was born. We had created both characters before the boys were born, and then when they were born, we thought, ‘Oh my gosh, they really do fit their personalities!’”
7. Most of the Lisa Frank characters are named after real people.
Naming two characters after her kids wasn’t isolated event: “We actually really try to base our characters off of people who are in our lives or who have been in our lives, and sometimes it's in memory. We ask people first,” Frank said, noting that she based two characters, Casey and Caymus, on her first golden retrievers. No one, Frank said, has refused: “People are actually begging us ‘Can you do a character with my name?’”
8. One early Lisa Frank character had a sad origin story.
Markie, one of Frank’s first characters, is a unicorn that lives “in the clouds above the Fantastic World of Lisa Frank” (a.k.a. “Airfluff Island”), likes butterflies, exploring, collecting stars, cloud hopping, and dreams, and hates “hesitation, bad smells, [and] bullies.” Frank told UO that the unicorn was “named after a friend of ours who died super-young of a heart attack.”
9. There’s a special Lisa Frank ink.
“We have a proprietary ink formula that I developed really early on so that everything would be brighter,” Frank told UO. “It's typical of a four-color process, but we use a special mixture to make those colors.” All licensees have to sign a confidentiality agreement because the mixture is a closely guarded secret.
10. One character has a lot in common with Lisa Frank herself.
Though she said there’s “probably a little bit of me in each character,” Frank told Urban Outfitters that the character that’s a lot like her is Purrscilla, “because she is very into glam and glitz and jewelry and everything very girly.” The cat even wears illustrated versions of Frank’s own jewelry. Funnily enough, Frank said that she’s not a cat person—she prefers dogs.
11. Mila Kunis starred in a Lisa Frank commercial in the 1990s.
She also appeared on the cover of the company’s fan magazine, Lisa and Me, in 1997.
12. There’s Lisa Frank clothing.
13. There was a Lisa Frank and Friends clothing line.
The collection, which blended the two ‘90s pop culture behemoths—the t-shirt featured Ross and Rachel alongside Frank's iconic aliens, while the sweat pants featured the logos for each brand along with Frank's designs—was available for just a single day.
14. Lisa Frank also collaborated with Ed Hardy.
The tattoo artist’s line of office supplies featured art by Lisa Frank Inc.
15. Lisa Frank Inc.’s headquarters is located on S. Lisa Frank Avenue in Tucson, Arizona.
The street was initially named South Masterson Avenue, after Bat Masterson, a friend of Wyatt Earp’s. It was renamed S. Lisa Frank Avenue in 1997—a move that prompted a protest from American Airlines, which was also located on the road and didn’t find out about the name change until a new street sign appeared.
By 2015, Frank’s 320,000 square foot facility, which features colorful characters inside and out, was mostly empty. According to a 2013 New York Times article, “Her factory, once bustling with hundreds of employees, has six staff members … Frank’s company, a victim of protracted legal battles over ownership and bad manufacturing deals, faded from popular culture—not an uncommon fate of the animal known as the retail fad.” The building went up for sale a few years ago.
16. The Lisa Frank offices have a fireproof vault.
There, the company stored copies of everything it had ever made, plus the original artwork that was done before computers. Known as The Library, it held thousands of products. “I think we made so many products because I get bored easily,” Frank told Urban Outfitters. “So as soon as we would master a category, I would want to do a different category. I'm trying to think what we HAVEN'T done. There is hardly something we haven't really done.”
17. At one point, there was a Lisa Frank app.
Lisa Frank Pic n’ Share allowed users to put Lisa Frank stickers on their photos.
18. Lisa Frank wanted to make a theme park.
“If I could do anything, I think a theme park,” Frank told UO. “Because the world of Lisa Frank really is a world. And I think before I die, we should have that world someplace, not just on paper. I think that would be pretty awesome.”
19. Lisa Frank’s Instagram is run by her son.
Lisa Frank’s Instagram presence is, in a word, delightful—and we have her 21-year-old son, Forrest Green, to thank for it. “I originally started the Instagram when I was in high school,” Green, then 20, told Elle in August 2019. “I stepped away from it to focus on school, then about 6 months ago, I took it over again.” When asked about his strategy for the page, Green said, “I just want people to feel inspired and happy when they visit the page. That's first and foremost. … What I try to do is be unique, different, and interact with people that may not feel so organic when they first look at it. You're like, ‘Why is Lisa Frank here? Why is Lisa Frank in this world? I don't get it. I want to know more about it.’ I don't want you to get me. I don't want you to get this company. I want you to continue asking questions. I guess that's my strategy.”