Heather Louise Bennett is the doll maker and illustrator of The Doll Farm, which turns out playful and plush creations from South Salem, New York. Her dolls have appeared in magazines and fashion shoots around the world and can also be found for sale on Etsy. I caught up with her to talk to her about her plush friends and the story behind them.
How and when were you first led to designing and making dolls?
I first started making dolls in 2004 when I put together one for my boyfriend (now husband) as a silly birthday gift. I had so much fun making it and received such great feedback from so many people that it gave my creative mojo a really good buzz. I had seen other artists online making little plush dolls, in addition to selling their paintings or other artwork, and I thought it was such a nice complement to their overall presentation that they offered these characters.
Which of your experiences have most influenced your work?
In the early days of my doll-making, we lived in Antwerp, Belgium. While my husband was at work I would explore the city. One day I peeked into the Koninklijk Museum voorSchone Kunsten Antwerpen and, although I felt they could use a little central AC, their collection really inspired me. Flemish fashion over the past 400 years is so weird and fabulous… some of those hats might as well be from another planet! And all those royals in their crazy pointy shoes and waffle cone hair-nets nearly blew my mind into bits. I had a “Eureka moment” wherein I felt that I had to resurrect everyone in the room and have them follow me home.
How do you choose what each doll should wear?
I spend a lot of time sketching. I have two large chalkboard-painted walls in my house, and I have numerous dry-erase boards in practically every room. On those walls you’re likely to read words like “peach and burgundy” or “Thomas Jefferson’s slug boy brother—rag time blue with powder pink”. Should you look around my desk (or any other flat surface) I’ve also written on junk mail & sticky-notes filled with color combinations that pop in my head. Many of them have question marks by them so I’ll remember to ask myself whether or not this is a good idea.
My dolls always start with a story; next comes the landscape where they live, and then I create the doll’s costume in relation to the landscape. For example, if I wanted to make a vampire who lives among the orchards of backwoods Georgia, I envision first the colors of the trees, the fruit, the blue sky, the insects, & the birds… then I ask myself how these things in this landscape would affect my character. Then it all comes together organically once I have this basic foundation.
Each of your dolls are quite unique. Do you have a favourite one and why is it so?
I have a few designs that I’m fond of, but my most-beloved doll is here with me. She’s a tiny little blue bat doll with red eyes made from a dish towel I found in Antwerp. She was one of my first designs that made my transformation from making silly little bears and skunks to making elaborate and complex characters with depth and movement.
The doll and fashion are very inter-related. Do fashion and trends have an effect on the aesthetic of your creations?
Fashion and modern trends definitely inspire me. I get a lot of my inspiration from fashion because there is a similarity in the core creative process: both begin with stories and how clothes or costumes fit into that story. I love the idea of taking designs in fashion that define certain eras of time, like Baroque dresses or Dutch hats, and putting them in a futuristic landscape. Alexander McQueen did things like that, and his collections never ceased to blow my mind.
Are you part of a doll making community? Could you describe what it is like?
I really don’t know if I am or not. I am so very busy and involved with what I do that I just don’t spend any time chatting or reaching out to other doll makers. That’s not to say I wouldn’t be open to being a part of a doll making community, it just hasn’t presented itself to me. I’m not a member of any club that I actively participate in. I think I joined a group on Etsy, but once I signed up that’s the last time I talked to anyone about it.
In your mind, do you categorize your creations as toys, fashion accessories or artworks?
I feel that my dolls have a place somewhere within all those categories. My dolls have been seen in numerous fashion photo shoots, and they could be used as toys in the context of an illustrative prop to be brought down from a high shelf and used for a child’s story time. My dolls are works of art because they have sincerity, depth and playfulness that is far-reaching, and the materials I use in making them are complex and special.
“Complex and special”? What kind of materials do you like to use and where do you find them?
Working with wool has to be my favorite because of its qualities of softness and toughness. I love mixing hot colors and modern prints with worsted wools and tweeds, which goes back to what I mentioned earlier about bringing the past into the future. I also love to use anything unique and durable… fake fur, polyester, dish rags, cut up vintage sweaters, children’s felt toys… as long as it works with the character, I’ll use it. My brother is an antique and estate dealer, so he’s directly plugged into some pretty amazing resources, like vintage clothes and fabrics from seamstresses long gone. I’m so fortunate to have an in-house supplier like that! But when things occasionally dry up in “big brother town”, I troll the web. Etsy is a good source for handmade buttons and hand-dyed wools, that’s for sure.
Some of your dolls are based on popular stories like Alice In Wonderland. Do you find an interest in the history behind each of your creations?
The Alice in Wonderland collection was something I would not have done if it hadn’t been for a stylist friend of mine who suggested the collection for a fashion shoot. Although I do love the story, I foresaw the market being flooded with Alice gear, and I was worried I’d be pegged as an opportunist. But not long after I began, I started having fun interpreting the characters as I saw them and I just kept going with it. So it has been great fun to explore this story.
Right now I’m really into American history. The Salem witch trials, the Civil War, Indians, the Donner Party… there are so many fascinating stories from which I draw inspiration. Many of my characters are based on actual historical events. For instance, the witch trials inspired my “Rose Lady” doll as well as my “Night of the White Bear” doll. Both were inspired by that stretch of time in early America when everyone was bloodthirsty for witches and it was practically a crime just to be a woman. With these dolls I wanted to give those people who endured so much brutality some justice and power in the form of killer plant arms, midnight metamorphosis or giant bear claws… its the best I can do for now… I mean, I’m just a one-woman show.
Do you design or make anything else when you are not making dolls?
I grew up thinking I that I was destined to be an illustrator or painter, so when I’m not making dolls (which is like, never!), I focus on how to start a graphic novel so I can shed some light on so many of the characters I create through needle and thread. Just prior to starting the Dollfarm, I tried to make an online comic, “The Late Night Milk Run”. It’s a story about a little girl who lives on an island where the houses are giant cuckoo clocks and everyone is shackled to time, order and monotony.
If your dolls could talk, what would they say?
They would definitely share secrets, but most of all they would insist that you show them all your modern advances like microwaves, blenders, and walky-talkies… ‘cause I’m not so sure they have those things where they come from.
Top ten most inspiring designers…
Alexander McQueen (of course!)
Ivan Maximov (animator)
Jan Svankmajer (stop-motion animator)
PES (stop-motion animator)
Walter Van Bierendonk
Viktor and Rolf (the atomic bomb collection was loads of fun)
Colleen Atwood (costume designer)
Yohji Yamamoto (always)
Camilla Rose Garcia (artist)
Diane Arbus (you know it!)
- Avyn Omel