BENNINGTON >> The public was invited into the R. John Wright Doll Company's workshop for the first time ever on Friday to tour the in-house production line and to celebrate 40 years of business.
Over a dozen people visited the first of two studio tours at the local company's 2402 West Road workshop, where they make dolls of all sizes and styles, some depicting characters from famous works such as "Alice in Wonderland," "The Wizard of Oz," "Peter Rabbit," and many more. The second studio tour will be held Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Founder John Wright created his first prototype for a doll in 1976. It later was insured by a company for $1 million to be shipped to Japan for an exhibition.
"I saw a lot of potential in the doll," said his wife and creative partner Susan Wright. "It's primitive."
"We always liked imaginative things and were always the artistic ones," John said.
Susan is from New Hampshire and graduated college with an arts degree. John is from Detroit, Mich. and left college after three years. Before founding the company, Susan was working at a restaurant and John had just gotten laid off from a hardware store. After being inspired by a picture of antique dolls, John made several of his own and sold them to a local craft store. The couple then set out to improve the dolls and grow the company.
"It was the best decision we ever made," Susan said.
The Wrights began producing in Brattleboro before relocating to Cambridge, N.Y. and eventually settled in Bennington.
The Wrights feel that a majority of their consumers are collectors and that by offering the open studio event, locals will be able to explore their world of dolls.
Susan and John design all of the dolls themselves. Seamstresses, a woodworker, painters and other artists mold felt fabric into the necessary shape of a character. Each doll is then airbrushed, stuffed, decorated with accessories and real hair and then boxed up to be sold. All dolls are made out of felt.
Maryanne Robertson has been an employee for 12 years and carries out several end-stage tasks including air brushing and solidifying molds by dipping them in a liquid starch and pressing it in a 350 degree machine for 20 seconds.
"All the artists are cross trained," Robertson said," and can do most of the steps from start to finish. There's a lot of little steps in everything we do."
The company has licenses in order to make dolls representing Disney characters such as Winnie The Pooh or Mickey Mouse, and even when dressing tiny mice in the same outfits as those famous figures. Susan talked about looking into a "Game of Thrones" and "Gone With The Wind" doll series as well.
The production artists are very much valued to the owners in that their consistency is what makes the dolls unique.
"It's a very artistic statement and very much artist controlled manufacturing," Susan said.
A small, five-inch mouse doll may cost $300, Susan said, while a two foot doll, depending on detail, costume and series, could cost $1,500 to $1,800.
"We do the things we love and hope other people like it to," Susan said. "We work very hard. The work will change from one style to another so collectors will drop off and we'll pick up new people. Some collect every doll we have."
R. John Wright does have an online store, however the couple knew it was time to do more marketing through social media and other ways.
"We've had good results; it's important to be seen. Things grow by exposure," Susan said. "When we first started going to craft fairs, ordinary people walked by and particularly men were intrigued by the artistry. Eventually our audience stopped being ordinary people and became collectors."
Angela Massenger has been a part of the Wright's production team for nine years and favors making the mice. She says the speed of the process varies with features and accessories.
It's not hard to tell that the Wright's business style is one-of-a-kind and not comparable to other doll manufacturers.
"The medium we use helps us be unique," Susan said. "Other figures are usually computer generated or made out of resin and not real."
"The medium is very important compared to figurines poured into a mold. Ours are sculpted and controlled. There isn't another maker who does what we do. It's multi-faceted."
For 15 years Karen McGuire has learned a lot to become part of the Wright production team and is almost always amazed at the finishing products. On Friday, McGuire was finalizing a tin man from Oz by shaping his fingers around a wooden axe.
"We do a lot of flower fairies and have just finished some angel hummels," McGuire said. "I really enjoy it, I think we all work really well together."
The second open studio day at the company's workshop, located at 2402 West Road in Bennington, will be held Saturday, Feb. 13, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is free and open to the public.
For more information on the R. John Wright Doll Company, visit www.rjohnwright.com.
—Makayla-Courtney McGeeney can be reached at (802)-447-7567, ext. 118.